What the ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell corruption case teaches families

The corruption trial for former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonell and his wife has reminded one mom that kids hear everything – good and bad – and there may be a teaching moment.

Alexa Welch Edlund/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell leaves the federal courthouse in Richmond, Va., with his lawyer John L. Brownlee on the second day of his and his wife Maureen's corruption trial, Tuesday, July 29.

As the scandal about former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen’s alleged corruption unfolds on the national news stage, Virginia parents aren’t the only ones whose children may zero-in on the idea that authority figures aren’t trustworthy and blame is something to be shifted rather than shouldered.

After 20 years of parenting I am still amazed when one of our four sons demonstrates that he has been absorbing a life lesson – good or bad – by paying attention to political events.

I admit to being even more surprised when one of my kids reveals the fact that he’s been paying attention to positive life lessons I am trying to teach.

This is one of those times when an event so permeates the local news that even younger kids find moral and social lessons.

Stories speculating about corruption during the former governor’s time in office have been ever-present in our lives via television, radio, newspaper headlines, social media, and social gatherings since before Mr. McDonnell left office.

According to news reports, the McDonnells allegedly sold the influence of the Governor’s office by accepting gifts, loans, and other favors in excess of $160,000 from businessman Jonnie Williams, former CEO of a diet supplement company called Star Scientific. Williams, the prosecution's star witness, says the gifts were in exchange for the governor's help in securing state approval for a nutritional supplement.

Both McDonnells told a federal jury Tuesday that the former governor was not to blame for any allegedly corrupt actions that may have taken place on his watch because their marriage was falling apart. According to Mr. McDonnell, his wife fell prey to the charms of Mr. Williams, leading to accepting the gifts, which he says he was largely unaware of. Mrs. McDonnell blamed her husband for his lack of attentiveness and Mr. Williams for tempting and spoiling her, according to multiple reports.

Because the newspaper sits on the dining room table each morning, and my sons all tend to read through it while eating, a discussion ensued about the former governor.

When the three older sons, ages 15, 19 and 20, had debated the ex-Governor’s choice to blame his wife for all the wrong-doing that took place, the youngest, age 10, shared some biblical knowledge.

“This is like that Adam and Eve story,” Quin said. “Like when God asks how they know they’re naked and Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent and the serpent says it’s not his fault that’s just what serpents do.”

I admit to being completely dumbfounded by the fact that he even paid attention in church or to the political discussion swirling around him, let alone that he drew that parallel.

To me the entire topic seemed far beyond his reach.

However, to my 10-year-old, the McDonnell story was as basic as an allegory about a man, a woman, a snake, and an apple.

Kids strip the issues bare. While that can be a good thing, it can also lead to them drawing some very stark conclusions about authority figures.

Our kids are trained in school to see politicians as role models to be respected. Mr. McDonnell was very vocal about his plans for our educational system and so our children here have been trained to pick him out of a crowd and his name out of any headline.

When those headlines cease to be about education or other worthy initiatives, and shift to sordid affairs of state and marital misery, parents have the difficult task of helping kids retain their respect for authority, while understanding that individual authority figures might not make the right decisions.

It all comes down to balance. If parents and other family members talk as much about what politicians do right as what they do wrong, kids will learn that politicians are people too, capable of both good and bad judgments.

Hopefully kids will come to understand that while adults may call it “the blame game” being a winner depends on not playing with the truth in the first place.

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