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Basic Dad: When Should You Tell Your Kid That All Their Idols Are Monsters?

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

When I was a kid in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the greatest dad on TV was Bill Cosby. Since I didn’t have a dad myself during these formative years, TV helped fill in the gaps for what a father should be. Of course, 20-some years later, Bill Cosby really isn’t someone I should be looking up to, and more recently, numerous celebrities who I’ve looked up to in my life have revealed themselves to be utterly despicable people.

The old adage says that you should never meet your heroes because they’ll inevitably disappoint you, but nowadays, you don’t even need to meet someone to learn how shitty they are — it’s in the news almost every day. Which, since I am a father now myself, makes me worried.

What happens when my kid finds out that some actor they look up to is a sexual predator? Or some baseball player they like has taken steroids? Or some musician they love is a bigoted asshole?

In short, how do I tell my kid that all their heroes are monsters?

The Expert Advice

Stephanie Perell, former art gallery owner and therapist: You can go to basically any museum in the world and be confronted with great art and inevitably see artists who didn’t act like such great people. Yet despite their failings as humans, their art didn’t diminish in value. For example: Caravaggio had anger-management issues; Diego Rivera abused Frida Kahlo; and Picasso was basically a pedophile. None of this has affected the value of their paintings.

So, if you’re with a child of an appropriate age and you happen to be viewing a piece of great art created by someone who had antisocial or even criminal behaviors, it may be worth having a conversation about duality. You can explain that people can be highly talented and interesting, and yet, they may also act in ways that aren’t acceptable. It’s a good lesson to teach kids, depending on how old they are. Even a 9-year-old can manage the conversation. When they’re starting with that abstract thinking, you can discuss value systems. You can talk about boundaries, or about how someone in power may not act appropriately.

It’s up to you if you decide to boycott something. You can say, “The values in our family disagree with this person, so we aren’t going to support them.” Or you may decide that you don’t want to miss out on good art. All of that is personal preference.

Bernadette Kovach, child psychologist and psychoanalyst: It’s like telling a kid that Santa Claus isn’t Santa Claus — with so many things, you want to ask yourself, “Why are you telling your child this?” If your 8-year-old is watching Bill Cosby and you say to them, “Sure, that person is funny, but they molest people,” they’re not even going to be able to comprehend that. To a teenager, however, you can explain, “That person seems nice, but it’s important to understand that people can present themselves one way, but still have an ulterior motive.” Then you can have a valuable conversation with your child that educates them.

Additionally, you may even decide to have a discussion about whether or not you can still watch a given program as a family. You may decide that this family no longer watches House of Cards, and that’s fine, but you may also discuss the issue with the child as long as they’re old enough. I think it’s an excellent discussion to ask, “What do you think about watching Kevin Spacey’s show now that you know what you know about him? Do you still want to watch? Do you know that they get royalties from that?” You may decide that the right way to educate your teenager is to explain to them all of the dynamics and then let them decide for themselves.

Alicia Sanchez Gill, director of research and program evaluation at YWCA USA: In my history of gender-based violence work, I’ve done work with survivors of domestic violence and families tackling issues much like you see in the news. For the children who see these news reports, I’d let them know that these people are brave because they’ve come forward to tell the truth about something bad that’s happened to them. And your child should know that if anything bad happens to them, they can also tell the truth. When we believe survivors, we set up conditions for our children to be believed if something were to ever happen to them.

In terms of how we navigate abusers, I think you can tell kids, “We can’t watch this show anymore, or we can’t listen to R. Kelly anymore because that person has done some really hurtful things and hasn’t taken responsibility for them.” If they’re old enough, you can press the issue a bit. By about 7 or 8, they may ask those difficult questions, so you can explain to them right and wrong in an age-appropriate way.

We have to model integrity for our children. If we say sexual abuse is bad, yet we watch sexual abusers on TV, we’re not modeling integrity for our children. Now, it’s probably impossible to block it all out, but I’d say you should draw the line somewhere and then explain your reasoning. Explain to them that this person never said sorry, and that you care about those people who were hurt.

Vanessa Fils-Aimé, HR specialist: When something like a sexual harassment case occurs in the workplace, it becomes a learning issue for everyone in the company. So, if you’re not already training on sexual harassment and training on what it looks like, you create awareness and educate.

It’s the same thing at home: You gradually increase a child’s awareness. My son is only 4, and we’re already teaching him about body awareness and boundaries. As they get older, you can evolve that conversation to tackle what they see on the news and what sexual harassment is and what forms it takes and why it’s not okay, so that they know how to navigate through the world themselves.

It’s complicated because America is just now dealing with this issue, trying to separate art from the person and trying to appreciate what someone has done for the culture. But it can be hard to separate those two things, and many people want to separate them because they want to appreciate it and not feel bad.

The best thing we can do is be honest with our kids that we don’t have all the answers. All you can do is have an open, but still age-appropriate discussion and explain that we’re all trying to navigate through this world right now — just do what you can to create a trusting dialogue between you and your child. As parents, no, we don’t have all the answers, but I believe our role in this is to create human beings who know how to behave properly and be respectful.