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.
In my case: I believe television is not harmful to kids. I believe using swear words is no biggie. I have no problem with consensual sex before marriage. Straight, gay, lesbian, transgendered or bisexual sex. I have never taken my kids to a church or synagogue. My umbrella belief? We need to accept each other in order for our family – and our society – to function happily and healthily.
I’m proud to pass this value along to my kids.
However, it’s easy to imagine other parents being horrified and appalled at the beliefs I am inculcating in my children. Perhaps even to the degree I’m outraged by the Heene’s actions. It’s not much of a stretch to conceptualize some other parents arguing that I – like Richard or Mayumi Heene –am “manipulating” or at least warping my kids. Not to score my own reality show. But to reflect my views of right and wrong.
We all do this. Parenting is a deeply personal, inherently subjective undertaking. We’d die for our kids. Why wouldn’t we lie for them? Or ask them to lie to strangers for our family’s welfare? I could even imagine feeling GOOD about doing so. We are all biased when it comes to our families.
So yes, if Richard and Mayumi Heene broke laws, they should be punished. As should any parents who break laws or neglect or abuse their children. But let’s be careful about condemning other parents with different values. We’re all raising our kids in glass houses. Let’s be judicious about where and when we throw stones.