Sure, turn off ESPN. But you still have to talk about the Penn State scandal

Nov. 11, 2011 at 11:56 AM ET

The morning routine of getting the kids up, fed, and ready for school has always merited a little background noise in our house. We (my journalist-husband and I) usually have a morning TV news show on to hear the headlines of the day.

Especially when our kids were younger -- but even sometimes today at ages 12 and 9 -- we'd change the channel when "bad" stories come on: a gruesome murder; an abducted child; a plane crash. No need for their young minds to be rattled by real life, we figure, especially when they've got a math or vocabulary test to focus on that day.

So on those bad-news days, ESPN -- with its rollicking round-ups and replays of the day's sports news -- is our good-news fallback.

Until this week, when the Penn State/Joe Paterno/child sex abuse scandal broke.

Sure, The Ravens barely beat the Steelers in a thrilling Sunday night game, and the Colts are still winless. But all that became “blah-blah-blah” amid the awful details of the alleged abuse that took place in those Penn State football showers, in that coach's basement, and beyond, for all those years.

For anyone, it is news that's difficult to hear. As parents of kids the same ages as those victims, we feel particularly outraged. And confused. How do we explain this to our kids, particularly to our 9-year-old, sports-crazy son?

Our son told me Thursday, "Mom, did you know Joe Paterno got fired?" When I asked him if he knew why, he answered: "Not really."

My initial fumble-of-an-explanation (from the parenting school of "when in doubt, tell them only what they need to know") was that a Penn State assistant coach did something really bad to a young boy and when Paterno found out about it, he didn't do enough to help the boy or turn the coach in to the police. For the moment, that was enough for my son. He didn't ask for more details.

But is "something really bad" an adequate explanation for – let’s just say it – raping a boy? No, it’s not. And frankly, we as parents – as the New York Times' Maureen Dowd recently described – are still working up the nerve to have “the conversation” about what really happened.

Dr. Robi Ludwig, a psychotherapist and TODAY contributor, says that no matter how ugly or upsetting the topic at hand is, parents shouldn’t be afraid of any conversation with a child.  

She suggests a good way to start, especially with younger kids, is by asking explanatory questions to find out what they know. “Ask them what they’ve heard on the news and get a sense of how they are interpreting the story,” she says. “They may not feel threatened because they see the news as separate from their own lives.”

In the Penn State case, the issue of sexual abuse may seem tough to talk about, Ludwig admits. But parents do best by addressing it head on, she says. Some of her tips include:

Be matter of fact. Tell your kids what the coach did, what he shouldn’t have done, and how they should handle it if it ever happened to them. You can say, “The coach was touching boys where he shouldn’t have been touching boys. And he was asking to do things with boys’ private parts that no adult should ask a boy or girl to do. So nobody touches your private parts except for you. And if someone asks you, you let someone know or you let me know.”

Don’t create paranoia. Ludwig says it’s important to not present the news in a frightening manner, and reassure them that it’s out of the norm. You can say, “Every coach is not a pedophile. There are people like that out there. But hopefully you’ll never come in contact with them.”

Be straight with kids.  You ultimately help kids by having a conversation, because that in itself creates an environment of safety, Ludwig says. “When there’s no conversation, it encourages kids to come up with their own fantasies and nightmares.” Talk about it and it becomes a safer topic. And ultimately, Ludwig says, you are expanding what your kids can talk about with you.”

When I told Ludwig I nixed ESPN this week to protect my son from the Penn State scandal, she said it’s not necessary to turn the TV off.

 “The news becomes a wonderful springboard for a conversation, if you use it correctly,” Ludwig says.

Have you had the conversation with your kids about the Penn State scandal? How did you handle it?