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Full text of Saturday's White House response. The Starr report is also online.

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Full Coverage: Including More Post Stories

Scandal Puts Parents on the Spot

By Ann O'Hanlon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 1998; Page A01

Patrice Deboer, mother of three, was face to face with her children's questions about President Clinton, his wife, his affair and his lies. So she did what more than a few parents have found themselves doing in the past week: She told some lies of her own.

"It's sort of like Santa Claus," Deboer said. "I've never wanted to lie to my kids, but then you've got certain things where you have to."

Her middle child, Daniel, 9, asked about the cigar, and the Prince William mother said: "I have no idea. I don't know anything about that."

Her children asked what oral sex was, and she explained that Clinton apparently was dating someone else even though he was married to Mrs. Clinton. And then they wanted to know why Mrs. Clinton was staying with him.

Instead of saying, "Because she's an idiot," which was on the tip of her tongue, Deboer softened her opinion considerably.

"She's sticking by him until the truth comes out, and then she probably won't stay with him," she said.

Parents throughout the Washington area say President Clinton's troubles have given them fodder for frank discussions with their children in recent weeks but also have caught them in awkward moments.

Therapists say parents should let the children lead the conversations, prompting them to say what they know and what they want to know. With the release on Friday of Kenneth W. Starr's report to Congress, though, parents are bracing for more -- and harder -- questions, trying to determine how to be honest without revealing too much about some sexual acts that have stunned even them.

For Hilary Kirk, Friday was about being a mother of three girls and coping with lurid sexual allegations.

She shopped for software to block her girls from using the home computer to read the Starr report on the Internet. She attended two school meetings -- one, ironically, about new character-education classes -- and listened to parents and administrators struggle with how to discuss the president's troubles with students. Tired already, she drove to her Bowie home to hear her 12-year-old ask whether the president would be impeached.

"Well you know, things are making it look more likely," she told Stefanie, who looked shocked. And that was before they watched the evening news together.

"The news report said something about cigars," Kirk said. "I struggled to find a reaction, and quite frankly, the only one I could come up with was that some of this stuff must be made up." Stefanie sat quietly, saying later that the news report made her "a little uncomfortable."

Many parents say they are turning the difficult moments into teaching opportunities: The president lied, and it came back to haunt him -- that's what happens when you tell a lie. The president has asked us to forgive him, so we must try to do that, and move on. Everyone makes mistakes, even the leader of our country.

And especially in religious families across the region, the biblical admonition, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," is part of living room and kitchen table conversations.

Riverdale mom Novella Sargusingh said that to her two school-age children, but not without also driving home the lessons. She talked to them about choosing friends and spouses carefully, pointing out that Linda R. Tripp was a bad choice for Monica S. Lewinsky, as was Bill Clinton for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"You understand what he did to his family?" she recently asked her son Schenley, 14. "You've already made a decision about what kind of family man you're going to be?"

Schenley replied: "I'm going to be there for my kids. I'm not going to cheat on my wife or nothing like that."

At the vortex of parental emotions today is anger -- with the media for bringing what they call pornography into their homes, with Starr, with Clinton, with Congress. Some are turning the anger into action. Kirk plans to write to her congressman, Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). "I would like it to end as quickly as possible," she said. "This is not worth the trauma that it's causing my family."

Parental anxiety cuts across political and philosophical lines. Two parents with conflicting approaches to sex education said that they have moments of sheer confusion about what to say and admit that at times they may simply turn off the television and tell their children that such topics are for older ears.

Cathy Raisher is a D.C. parent of two who teaches family life and sexual health at Lafayette Elementary School. Susan Fleming is a Fairfax mother who opts her five children out of the county's sex education classes until 10th grade, at which time she and her husband are certain they will have conveyed their Christian values about the birds and the bees.

Raisher has discussed the Clinton issues openly with her 14-year-old son and has listened to her daughter, 8, express her disgust at what she has heard. But she heard tales of the cigar Friday afternoon and said she might just have to keep that and other "bizarre and kinky stuff" from her children, especially her daughter.

"I really don't want to talk to her about that," Raisher said.

Moreover, if her students ask her when class convenes in January, she will tell them, "It's not something I am comfortable discussing."

Fleming's three older children -- ages 13, 15 and 17 -- will learn from this scandal more about sexual practices than she would prefer.

Fleming's 8-year-old asked, "What has President Clinton done that everyone is so upset about?" Fleming answered, "He has been too close a friend to someone who wasn't his wife," adding that that is enough for her daughter's ears.

Fleming plans to talk to her older children before they learn things elsewhere. But yesterday, seeing the complete Starr report in the newspaper, she tucked the section out of sight.

She and her husband, she acknowledged, still are trying to sort out what to talk about and when.

The best approach, an area therapist said, is to throw the question back at the child initially, taking age into consideration.

"Tell me what you think, tell me how you're feeling about it," is a good opening line, advised Erica Gants, a therapist with the Women's Center in Vienna. "Because then you can get usually a lot of feedback from the child on his specific concerns, his curiosity and what he's heard already."

But sometimes what children are curious about is exactly what parents don't want them to know. Washingtonian Toni Vincent's 10-year-old daughter came into the bedroom before school and asked about oral sex. Vincent was stunned, so she explained just the "oral" part of the expression.

"I told her it was something verbal," she said.

Rockville parent Nanette Goodman said her 10-year-old son, Alex, listened to the radio news Friday night and asked, "What's salacious?" Goodman deferred to her husband.

Earlier, Alex asked for an explanation of a cartoon depicting Clinton and Mark McGwire in the race for the most home runs. "What's a home run?" Alex asked. "I had to tell him," Goodman said. "I said, 'It's slang for having sex with somebody.' "

Some parents of younger children say that, gratefully, much of the sexual talk goes over their children's heads. But the children know, nonetheless, that the president did something bad, and they find that upsetting.

Brian Gehrdes, 8, who knows cold the names of Clinton's daughter, his cat and his dog, came home from third grade recently with an unusual question.

"Who is the president's boss?" he asked his mother. His gist, said Mary Alice Gehrdes, was: Who would fire him, to whom was he responsible?

"It's the people," the Annapolis mom said. "It's us."

In Charles County, J.T. Motz, 7, announced from the back seat on a dinner outing last week that he didn't want to vote anymore. He was thinking of the mock presidential elections his class held in 1996. Now, he said, he had to tell his teacher that he didn't want to participate in future votes.

"I picked Bill Clinton last time," he said, "and I made a bad choice."

Staff writers Amy Argetsinger, Patricia Davis, Michael E. Ruane and Cheryl W. Thompson contributed to this report.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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