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Turning Controversies Into Teaching Moments

Kanye West, demonstrating that he needs a time-out. (AP)

As parents, we all know that sometimes our kids have a hard time keeping quiet. But the past week has demonstrated that even high-profile, grown-up, public figures don't always know when to shut-up.

It started last Wednesday with Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and his "You lie!" outburst during President Obama's speech on health care reform. Then came tennis pro Serena Williams's decision to unleash a verbal tirade on a line judge during the U.S. Open semifinals. And finally, bringing the trend of mouthiness full circle, Kanye West hopped on stage Sunday night during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards because he thought everyone in the world needed to realize that, you know, Beyonce is better.

My son is only 2. He's not a member of Congress or a professional athlete or a hip-hop star. In fact, the most illustrious job titles he's held, based on the assignments doled out each day in his daycare classroom, are "line leader" and "boo boo helper." But I think even he knows that it's not nice to yell at someone or interrupt another person when he or she is talking. If Rep. Wilson or Williams or West were in my son's class, their behavior would have earned them an immediate time-out, no question.

Which raises an important question: when mini-cultural controversies like these erupt, is there a way that we moms and dads can turn them into teaching moments for our kids?
Toddlers like mine are clearly too young for any of the chatter about these incidents to really register. But elementary school-aged children, preteens and teens -- even the ones who allegedly never watch MTV or any TV at all -- undoubtedly have heard about these exercises in inappropriate gabbiness. Aren't there some life lessons we can impart to our kids based on what has happened in the halls of Congress, on the tennis court or, yes, even onstage at the VMAs?

"Actually, no," you say. "The media makes too much out of stuff like this. And I don't want to talk to my sons and daughters about it because that just gives these people's behavior more attention than it deserves, and suggests that debating such ridiculous events is actually a worthwhile endeavor."

Okay, some fair points there. Especially in the case of Kanye, the media has -- as we are wont to do -- inflated the moment into a debacle so major it merits a "-gate" suffix. But here's the ugly truth about American culture: even if we try to shield our children from discussing "controversies" like this, they will hear about them anyway. Information -- or misinformation -- trickles down to them eventually. And as soon as one seemingly silly public mistake fades away, a new one undoubtedly will rise to the surface, sparking another round of mindless debate.

That's why I think it's important to find a productive, thoughtful way to discuss these sorts of current events, to turn off all the blowhards posting insane Facebook status updates about Serena or screaming about Wilson on cable TV and take ownership of the conversation with our own children, even if the conversation we have is brief.

If you haven't already, try not to share your own feelings about, say, Kanye's yakking or Wilson and Williams's rage. Then while you're eating dinner or driving your preteen home from school, ask him or her what she thinks. "Should Serena Williams have spoken those words? What would you do if you disagreed with something the President was saying? If you think what Kanye West did was wrong, does that mean you won't listen to any of his songs again?"

Let your children do the talking and see if they find their way to the right answers about how to behave and treat others. And while they're talking, do something that neither Wilson nor Williams nor West was able to accomplish: just close your mouth and listen.

Jen Chaney -- who covers topics as varied as movies, DVDs and "Lost" for, contributes to Babble's Strollerderby blog and happens to be the mother of a toddler -- writes occasional posts for On Parenting.

By Jen Chaney |  September 16, 2009; 9:15 AM ET  | Category:  Child Development , Discipline , Entertainment , Newsmakers
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Um, Jen. When you've raised a kid who is at least out of diapers, come back with the liberal pinko parenting advice.

Posted by: jezebel3 | September 17, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

jezebel : she's only trying to start a discussion. she didn't really tell you what to do - just gave a few ways to discuss. and we should discuss with our kids.
learning doesn't only happen in the classroom.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | September 17, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Congrats, Jen. Snarky words from the resident troll are like a baptism around here.

I like the idea of a time out for celebrities. Still, the what would you mother have thought question was as good as a Dr. Phil slap down.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | September 17, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

It's too easy to find examples of public figures behaving badly. The better conversation is the one about how Beyonce responded. The lady has class.

Around our house, we're now doing our best Kanye spoofs - like if someone says "the pot roast is good," someone else jumps in and says that Beyonce's is better.....

Posted by: GroovisMaximus61 | September 17, 2009 10:10 AM | Report abuse

These three incidents were somewhat different. Tying them all together seems somewhat improper.

- Wilson was shouting in a somewhat disrespectful tone at the president during a speech

- Williams reacted angrily to a correct foot-fault call that pushed her to match point down against Clijsters. She didn't interrupt anyone nor disparage an opponent; she verbally threatened an official

-West interrupted a winner making a speech, and thus stole a moment of glory from Taylor Swift

Our kids are somewhat older than Jen's (20, 18, 17 and 12); here's how these issues were discussed with them:

- Wilson: the President is the President and even if you dislike the person you should respect the office. That was true for Bush, and it should be true for Obama and whoever the next President is. On the other hand, where's the boundary between a supporter screaming "you go, Barack" and an opponent screaming "you lie"? Would one be okay but not the other? Why?

- Williams: the kids have all played enough to know that officials have to make tough calls, and sometimes they get them wrong (even if this one was right) and you deal with them. You don't threaten an official when a call is made against you, no matter how much money is on the line. Williams deserves a suspension; in a team sport she'd already be sitting out games.

- West: drunk, obnoxious celebrities do stupid things. Plus, there's still a suspicion that it was all planned. MTV gets gobs of free publicity; Beyonce comes off as a heroine for bringing Taylor Swift back up; Taylor Swift comes off as a combination victim/heroine; and Kanye comes off as a jerk because, well, he's like the pro wrestling villain being set up for the redemptive arc next year.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | September 17, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Off Topic: "Jen Chaney -- who covers topics as varied as movies, DVDs and "Lost"...

That is quite a variety of topics. How does she manage?

On-Topic: I'm not sure where this notion of a "teaching moment" came from. Every interaction we have with our own children, verbal or not, models behavior or demonstrates values. The idea that I need to seize upon a popular event and use it for some specific lesson just seems like advice for parents who are either trying too hard or not trying hard enough.

Posted by: 06902 | September 17, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Off topic: Kanye West doesn't care about white people!

(For the humor impaired: that's a joke. It's satire. I'm not being serious. If you don't get it, see )

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | September 17, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

I'm guessing Kanye won't be invited to participate in the White House Music Series.....

Posted by: GroovisMaximus61 | September 17, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse

I doubt my kids know who Kanye West is, they don't watch MTV. They don't watch Tennis either. I don't know if they know about either of these instances, but they know that celebrities are (for the most part) not to be looked up to, and Sports Figures are iffy. I suppose they would know that both instances were bad behavior.

I don't think they know about the Joe Wilson outburst, but it would be a teachable moment. I think you should always respect the President when he is speaking in the chamber and I'm glad Rep Wilson apologized. If my kids ask about it I would point out the disintigration of the behavior of Politicians for the past 20 years, and add that at least Rep Wilson apologized. There are few politicians I consider worthy of the being called "Statesman" - and our kids know who those individuals are.

My take, celebrities, sports figures and Politicians are pretty worthless. If my kids want someone to look up to, they have plenty of examples in their lives, and I'm glad they know it.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | September 17, 2009 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Um, Jen. When you've raised a kid who is at least out of diapers, come back with the liberal pinko parenting advice.

Posted by: jezebel3

Are you the only one on here who is qualified to give their opinion?

Posted by: sunflower571 | September 17, 2009 11:10 AM | Report abuse

"I would point out the disintigration of the behavior of Politicians for the past 20 years"

I think you forgot a couple of 00's on the end of that number...

Posted by: 06902 | September 17, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Hey Jen, here's some advice from an experienced father on the use of time-outs:

Using time-outs to correct rude, obnoxious or unwanted behavior for disciplining your child doesn't work.

What works? Correct the behavior and move on. offer a positive example like "Say please instead of gimme". Teachable moments are effective too. Example: If your child sees another teammate acting with unsportsmanship like conduct, point out the specific misbehavior, explain how the situation should have been best handled, and tell your kid that you expect better from him/her.

Of course there are times when a child should be removed from an uncontrolable situation, needs to go to his room because he is cranky and needs a nap, or you just want to get him out of your hair. However, if you find yourself threatening your kid with time-outs, you're wasting your effort on an ineffective behavior modification technique.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | September 17, 2009 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Wacky, I never used timeouts, but as my kids were older I have sent them to their rooms (no tv or computer in there) to simmer down. They usually come out contrite with an apology - and sometimes they fall asleep!

Posted by: cheekymonkey | September 17, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

We used time-outs a lot, and they worked well for our kids. But *threatening* a time-out was *never* done. If the behavior warranted a time-out, the kid was in in time-out immediately - no threats ahead of time.

Older son will still put himself in a time-out when he feels he needs it - mostly at school where the more-chaotic classes can sometimes overwhelm his autistic nervous system. Younger son doesn't call it a time-out anymore, but he will walk away from a conflict and go decompress for a while in his room.

I wish our parents had used time-outs when DH and I were children. Neither of us is as good at managing our own melt-downs as the boys manage theirs. Of course, being middle-aged adults we don't have nearly as many instances of melting-down, and when it does happen we get to model the behavior of apologizing and making amends.

Our public-figure examples have all apologized (I believe that Rep. Wilson owed an apology to the Congress as well as to the President, but that's not going to happen and the Congress has dealt with it.) and it seems to me that it's time to put these events behind us.

Posted by: SueMc | September 17, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

My parents never made me go into time-out either. I don't think time-outs actually existed when I was a kid, most parents just kicked their kids outside when they got unruly, which, in my opinion, works out much better for both parent and child. Unfortunately, CPS put an end to this very effective disciplinary technique when they published guidelines on age appropriate supervisory standards.

As far as apologies go, unless it is sincere, meaning that the person is sorry and will try not to do it again, it is worthless. That's why I never demand an apology from my kids (or anybody else) if I feel that I've been wronged. If I did, I would be merely insisting the they lie and pay lip service to manipulate a better situation for themselves. Of course, for politicians, this is a necessary and refined trait for our federally elected officials.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | September 17, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

I have seen these news articles grow to viral proportions, yet this is the first time someone has broken it down to a life lesson/teaching. Thank you for the insight, I'll pass it along to my boys.


Twitter katluvsshoes

Posted by: KatLuvsShoes | September 18, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

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