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When the Kids Ask Questions

By Megan Rosenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 1998; Page D01

There it is when you put the newspaper on the breakfast table, when you turn on the television or listen to the radio. Words like "improper relationship," "alleged affair" and "infidelity" go whizzing around the kids' heads. Mommy, Daddy, what's adultery?

When the reports are about the president, parents may get more questions than they do when the news is about some Hollywood actor. Some parents find themselves resenting the fact that special prosecutors and investigative reporters are prompting off-the-cuff sex education; others see the headlines as opportunities for "teachable moments," as sex educator Deborah Roffman puts it.

Child experts say it is unlikely anyone under age 9 will be paying attention to the allegations of the day. And most children over that age will be as interested in issues of truth-telling and power as in sexual innuendo. They will take their cues about what aspects of the story are significant from what they hear their parents talking about.

"I think that first of all you need to approach any questions they have so they feel free to ask, and understand what they understand about it," said Sylvia Remm, a psychologist in Cleveland and the author of "Smart Parenting." "You have to make it clear we don't know if the president told the truth or not. The rush to judgment isn't quite fair."

But once you've made that point, Remm says, if a child asks about the sexual aspect of an extramarital affair, "with children you need to be clear-cut that these aren't good family values, it may not be against the law but it hurts the people you love. With a teenager you can give them some sensitivity about how powerful sex can be. How it can really mislead people and how careful you need to be. And that that is why we say to use sex responsibly, and why we ask you to keep your bedroom door open if a friend of the opposite sex is visiting.

"If they ask about adultery you can refer to the Ten Commandments," Remm said, "and tell them it's wrong. But some people do have relationships out of marriage and they hurt people. And if it's true, it was the wrong thing for the president to do."

Carolyn Howe, whose three children go to Janney Elementary School in Northwest Washington, says that only her oldest, a 10-year-old daughter, seemed interested in the story. "She was initially saying, 'Why is she [Linda Tripp] taping her friend's conversations?'" Howe said. "We do try to discuss what public office is about – and try to talk about morals, and what power is and whether he abused his power. And she asks, 'What do you mean people abused power? What do you mean by impeached?' I had to explain, and that led me to talk about the women's movement and why people take sexual harassment seriously."

Howe is a staunch Democrat who has been a strong defender of the president. These days she is discouraged, worried that political cynicism among the young will be another effect of the current investigations. "I'm just disgusted," she said. "I want to defend the guy and it's getting harder and harder."

A Takoma Park father who did not want to be named says his 9-year-old son was very interested in the story. "We said it's about this relationship with this woman he had and we don't know whether it really happened or not," said the father. "We don't talk about the sexual aspect. We're couching it more in terms of the problems that can be generated by lying, getting him to understand what perjury is and that sort of thing. If he asks me about the sexual stuff, I will answer factually, and say the reason it's called an improper relationship is she's not his wife."

Mothers gathered outside Bethesda Elementary yesterday to pick up their children also found a mixed range of interest from their kids. "My son asked about it this morning," said Susan Land of her 9-year-old. "We said you're going to hear bad things about the president, but they may not be true. When he wanted to know more, we said a woman is saying that he bothered her."

"When the Paula Jones thing was first in the news, my 11-year-old wanted to know what an affair was," said Penny Clark, who has two daughters. "We told her it meant for a married person to have a romantic relationship with someone they're not married to. She had said there was a rumor that a boy she knew was having an affair, so we got that straightened out."

Roffman, who teaches human sexuality in private schools in the Baltimore area, says that despite complaints about the media's saturation coverage, the story can give parents an opportunity to discuss sexual issues and impart values. "Kids need adults to constantly process what they are seeing around them. I speak to parents about their role as cultural interpreters. It's a parent's job to highlight the events the parent thinks are important."

Both Roffman and Remm say teenagers who duck away from talking about the sexual stuff may have something on their minds that parents can pursue later with gentle questions. "No parent should feel compelled to bring it up," though, Roffman said.

"I am much more concerned about the issue of kids feeling safe about government," she added. "There are constantly stories about people in government who are less than they ought to be. When it gets to be about sex, that gets the attention – but if I step back and look at the big picture, it's how kids feel about government that concerns me. It's a field day for values discussions."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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