Lessons from Balloon Boy.

by Leslie Morgan Steiner


Like millions of moms, I was transfixed by the airborne journey of Falcon Heene, the six-year-old Colorado boy trapped inside his father’s homemade balloon contraption floating thousands of feet above the ground near Denver.


Then the story was revealed as a hoax allegedly fabricated by the boy’s parents.


For at least 24 hours I shared our nation’s outrage with Mayumi and Richard Heene, parents who seemed to lack any compunction against the waste of public money, the risk to the rescuers, and using their children to wangle their way into a reality show. They’d asked their children to lie to police and myriad other adults. They shoved them in the media limelight without their consent or any understanding of what they were doing.


However, didn’t we all get a tad too enthusiastic with our criticism? Thousands of tv shows like The View, blogs and articles have called for punishment of the parents by legal authorities, including investigation by child protective services.


Maybe we’ve been overzealous with good reason: perhaps the Heene parents’ failings hit a bit close to home for all of us.


The uncomfortable truth is that all parents – to varying degrees – manipulate our children.


Some of us call it “putting our kids first” or “giving our kids guidance” or “passing along our values.” I’m sure Falcon Heene’s parents felt justified in asking their children to further a scheme that would benefit the family overall, financially at least. Truth is most family values can be fairly subjective. There are inevitable conflicts between what is morally right – and what serves the child or family best. Before you call me crazy, stop for a second and consider what you’ve seen other parents do in the interest of protecting their children and their families.


One of my school’s PTA stalwarts (the other parent is an Ivy League colleague professor) encouraged his child to cut in front of one hundred kids at the ice cream truck line. A schoolteacher adamantly lied to me and other parents about her child’s medical diagnosis – in violation of school policy and with considerable danger to other children. Several graduates of a local, prestigious prep school were recently accused of rape – and their parents vociferously denied the charges and hired expensive lawyers to obfuscate the issues, despite evidence of wrongdoing by their sons.


Let’s level with ourselves here: at time we are all vulnerable to selfishly putting our children and our families first, and shaping our children to reflect our values. Sometimes our beliefs are openly biased and judgmental. Sometimes we are morally and ethically wrong.


leslie morgan s...

Leslie Morgan Steiner
Thanks Lizzie B!

MF -- I totally agree with you. However when we all attack a family so ferociously it raises a red flag in my mind. On a smaller scale, most parents do stuff that we sometimes shouldn't for the supposed good of our families. It seems like this might be a good opportunity for us to examine ourselves, instead of heaping too much criticism (although it is deserved, as you eloquently point out) on someone else. That dad is cwazy! And I feel bad for Mom. And the kids, of course.


Leslie - long time fan, but I disagree here. To me, balloon boys' parents' actions crossed a line - having your children lie so that everyone thinks there is imminent danger to a small boy just to get attention is wrong any way you look at it. I just cannot justify it with the explantion that it may have benefitted the family financially, so it was okay. There is a difference between right and wrong in a community, and parents should model that for their children. To prey upon people's fear that harm was going to come to a child- to watch while emergency workers tried their best and feared the worst - all for attention and possible future publicity money - it's crass, idiotic and just plain mean. Decent citizens would never do this to each other. Good parents would never do this to their children.


Leslie, thanks for reminding us all to take a step back and look at the big picture. I'm not sure if it's human nature but I'll admit - I'm guilty of rushing to judgment. I too could come up with a laundry list of things that are acceptable for my family yet others would find atrocious. So, lesson learned. Thanks.