It’s a common response when tragedy strikes a child: Where were the parents? How could they let this happen? After a child is hurt or killed, online mommy-shamers inevitably swoop in, incapable of offering enough empathy to appreciate that sometimes bad things happen even to children with the best parents.
In the wake of the Larry Nassar case, as scolds tend to do, they’ve swooped in again.
While there are neglected kids in America, by all outward appearances, most of Nassar’s victims were not those children. In many cases, their parents (often their mothers) were incredibly involved, shuttling their gifted kids to predawn and after-school athletic practices and even accompanying them to and into the rooms that the medical “treatments” were performed by Nassar (and recommended by the young women’s trainers and coaches).
During a victim impact statement, one mother, Anne Swinehart told the court and the world: “Quit shaming and blaming the parents. Trust me, you would not have known and you wouldn't have done anything differently.”
Mommy-shamers tend to swoop in no matter what, their sanctimony immune to the facts of the case. In 2016 in Florida, for instance, when an alligator grabbed a child off of a beach at Disney resort, there were those who asked Where were the parents?, ignorant of the fact that the father had been nearby and valiantly attempted to wrestle his young son out of the jaws of the monster. CBS News reported at the time that one parenting blogger, Melissa Fenton, demanded in a Facebook post that people show more compassion for parents on the what are probably the worst days of their lives. "We now live in a time where accidents are not allowed to happen, “ she wrote. "Why? Because BLAME and SHAME."
When a toddler fell into a gorilla enclosure in Cincinnati in 2016, the story was much the same: A wave of judgment fell on the parents, who were, thankfully, unidentified in news reports. There was so much online anger from those who believed the parents to be negligent that the question was raised if they would be held legally accountable for the incident, and county prosecutors felt compelled to announce they would not be bringing charges.
Most parents don’t want to believe that anything bad can happen to their children, or they want to believe that they can prevent it; therefore, they seem to think, there must have been something the other parents could have done differently in order to prevent tragedy.
After abuse as widespread as Larry Nassar’s comes to light, there is a fine line between blaming parents and helping all of the rest of us learn valuable lessons about what could have been done differently. Julie DiCaro wrote in the Washington Post about about when parents of athletes should be wary of a coach or other official, and how to understand and teach when a relationship becomes inappropriate. But, importantly, DiCaro doesn’t assign blame to the parents whose children were abused. “Gymnasts, in particular, become used to being touched, held, thrown, caught, bent and stretched by coaches at an early age,” she explained, “sometimes blurring the lines between ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ for small children.”
She added, “Given the competitive nature of parents involved in youth sports, a coach taking a special interest in a young athlete is as likely to be attributed to a child’s superior athletic genes as grooming for sexual abuse,” noting that the key factor to which most parents would normally be attuned often doesn’t apply in elite athletic settings.
So why do many have the impulse to blame the parents — who are in many ways victims themselves — when children are abused, instead of the abuser? Most parents don’t want to believe that anything bad can happen to their children, or they want to believe that they can prevent it; therefore, they seem to think, there must have been something the other parents could have done differently in order to prevent tragedy.
Sometimes, bad things happen to good people — and they can happen at any moment, which is one of the most terrifying aspects of being alive.
Unfortunately, tragedy is rarely so orderly, so predictable, or so preventable. Sometimes, bad things happen to good people — and they can happen at any moment, which is one of the most terrifying aspects of being alive. To cope with that terror, many of us like to pretend it can’t and doesn’t happen.
Thankfully, as a society, we’ve been finally, slowly moving away from the idea that the victim of a sexual assault is in any way to blame for the actions of her abuser or assailant. While there are sometimes strategies that some women can and should take to protect themselves, at the end of the day, if abuse or an assault happens, the only person at fault is the abuser, regardless of the victim’s actions.
And just as the victims in the Nassar case deserved none of what their abuser put them through, we also need to realize the emotional toll that the abuse of a child can have on a parent. Speaking at Nassar’s sentencing, one of Nassar’s victims, Kyle Stephens said to her abuser: “You convinced my parents that I was a liar.” And, as she noted, after her parents learned that the abuse wasn’t a figment of a young girl’s imagination, but had in fact happened while they had defended their daughter’s abuser against her accusations, her father commited suicide.
The blame always ultimately lies with the abuser. Internalizing the idea that we can protect our children from all manner of harm or else we’re to blame for whatever happens of them is dangerous for parents and, ultimately, for our children.
For all of our sakes, we should indeed discuss how parents of all stripes, especially those of athletes in intensive training, can protect children. But also have to appreciate that, like these girls, their parents will carry the scars of Nassar’s abuse and their own guilt for the rest of their lives. There’s only one true villain in this story; his name is Larry Nassar.
Bethany Mandel is a senior contributor to The Federalist, an editor at Ricochet, a columnist at the Jewish Daily Forward and, in her spare time, a stay-at-home mother of three.