Let me start by stating the obvious: the sexual assault of the inebriated young woman in Steubenville, Ohio by two high school athletes was a heinous act for which punishment is just and proper. This is a tragic case in which everybody lost. A young woman will be haunted by the sexual assault itself, by the knowledge that online images of the assault will be floating around the town and the world forever, and by the fact that members of her community (incredibly) fault her for turning the boys in. The two young men who digitally penetrated her as onlookers stood by watching and recording them will be incarcerated, will have to register as sexual offenders upon their release, and will have to live with the responsibility of ruining a young woman’s life. Whatever hopes and dreams all three of these young people had in life are changed irreparably by the horrific circumstances of one Friday night.

As the parent of a young adult daughter, I shudder to read about that poor young woman surrounded by attackers and people who failed to help her. And as the parent of two teenaged sons, I shudder to read yet another story of young men allowing a night of partying to turn into a night of sexual assault. We’ve seen this before. Fueled and confused by the lethal combo of alcohol, a bravado born of the hero-worship that local athletes often enjoy, and an abandonment (however temporary) of any kind of moral decency or good sense, young men cross the line to commit terrible crimes. It would be easy to dismiss these young men as perverted lunatics, but watching one of the young men’s hysterically tearful apology to the girl and her family lets us know that the story is more complicated than that. How do we as parents use these cautionary tales to instruct our boys and girls about avoiding opportunities to get into serious, terrible trouble?

I write this from the Bahamas, where high school and college kids have gathered during Spring Break to take advantage of warm beautiful weather, a lower drinking age (18) and the absence of parental supervision to party like it’s 3am all day. As I walk past throngs of young women wearing next to nothing bikinis or impossibly short dresses with more impossibly high heels, gathering to plan their next moves, I want to gather them and warn them that no good can come of the combination of their outfits and the abundance of alcohol. As I see the groups of young men eyeing these young women I want to stop and tell them don’t lose your sense of right and wrong, don’t be goaded by your friends into taking risks, stay aware of your surroundings and have good common sense at all times. I’ve had this conversation with my son dozens of times, and now I want to yell at all of them at the top of my lungs, “PLEASE DON’T BE STUPID”.

Don’t be stupid. How often have we said this to our sons, to ourselves? And yet daily our children take chances, some of them really stupid, which lead them to face unfortunate but completely foreseeable consequences. If it were only so simple that issuing a note (or a million notes) of caution could make the difference.

But there is another side to this: a little bit of stupid can go a long way. Learning not to be stupid involves making a few mistakes, so you can see firsthand how not to make them again. As parents our job is not to shelter our children from the opportunity to choose to do the right thing. College infirmaries are filled with kids whose parents shielded them so well from the stupidity of indulging in bad behavior that the first day they were on their own they overdid it. As I see it, our job is not to protect our kids from making any stupid mistakes; it is to arm them with as much common sense as we possibly can, encourage them to use that common sense to think their way away from potentially bad situations, and pray fervently that this will all work to keep them from making the Big Stupid Mistakes. Talking to our (age appropriate) children about all of the lessons of this tragic Steubenville case is a good start.

It is easy to be judgemental, to survey those kids in Steubenville or these kids in the Bahamas and smugly assure ourselves that our son or daughter will never participate in any such reckless behavior. It is harder to acknowledge that some of us came to know the problems of reckless behavior from personal experience. Maybe we were in a party where stupidity reigned and consequences flowed, or we knew people for whom being in that crowd was a really stupid mistake. Hopefully not a life altering or criminal mistake, but a really stupid mistake nonetheless.

As parents we dance on the head of a pin stuck between constantly saying “no way” based upon our knowledge born of experience, and allowing our children to develop and use the common sense that they need to have on their own. It is an exhausting marathon dance. Stories like the one out of Steubenville remind us that we can’t stop dancing. Talk to your teenaged sons and daughters about the Steubenville case. Talk to them about knowing when to stop, when to walk away and when and how to get help (and contact you) in dangerous situations. Tell them how much harder it is to do these things when alcohol blurs judgement. If you decide to let them go, tell them to have fun and be safe. Remind them you’ll be there no matter what, but that part of the deal of letting them go is that you trust they can and will stay focused on not being stupid. Then try not to hold your breathe until they come home.