Scandal Feeds Kids' Questions
WASHINGTON — Michael CROMARTIE knows times have changed when the evening news comes on the television, and he feels compelled to shoo his children away.
"Please leave the room, I'm watching the news!" the father of three from Arlington, Va., ordered recently.
"My nine-year-old is like, 'What's so bad about that?' " he recalls. And I say, 'Well, go help your mother.' "
Exchanges like this have played out between parents and children all over the United States in recent months as the nation has wrestled with tales of President Clinton's relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Some parents are using the Lewinsky affair as a springboard for discussion with their children on morality, fidelity, and lying. Others are fumbling around for age-appropriate answers.
Whatever the scenario, the Lewinsky chapter of US history raises questions about the kind of moral lessons, if any, young Americans are taking from public leaders - and how exactly parents should handle the inevitable questions from children who are bombarded by the wall-to-wall media coverage. Some experts advise focusing on broader matters and skirting the most titillating aspects.
"The Lewinsky matter isn't just about sex - it's about how people treat each other. It's about consequences," says author and educator Herbert Kohl. "That's something you can discuss in kindergarten."
If the appearance, for now, is that Mr. Clinton may "get away" with wrongdoing, then parents can point out the ways in which he is paying a price for his actions. Though he's still president and his wife is still at his side, he has nonetheless humiliated his family.
"If he's any kind of decent human being, he has to be dying inside to be able to look at that," says Mr. Kohl. "Another consequence is his own humiliation. He's a figure of ridicule around the world, and kids ought to know that."
Mr. Cromartie, the father of three, has avoided any exploration of Clinton's problems with his kids - ages 11, 9, and 6 - because he doesn't feel they're ready for the sexual details, and he's not sure he can limit the scope of their questions just to broad moral themes.
As a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, he is concerned that the president has set a bad example for adults, who will buy into the "everybody does it" mentality on adultery, and that that attitude will trickle down to children.
Other experts on leadership caution against too much hand-wringing about any negative lessons children might get from Mr. Clinton. "Most Americans get their ideas of morality from other sources than the political system," such as from churches or family, says Richard Brody, an emeritus professor of political science at Stanford University in California.
Children most closely follow the examples set by their parents, says behavioral scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. "You can't change the president's behavior, but you can act with integrity yourself," he advises.
Still, many parents are disappointed that Clinton - who has made children a focus of his administration - has set such a bad example for them.
"I expect politicians to act as moral leaders," says Jean Travelyn from Bedford, N.H., who has four children aged 10 to 16. But given the news, she adds, "it's been a great opportunity to talk about values. We've certainly had some interesting discussions - about trust, honesty, and truthfulness."
Not all parents shoo their children out of the room when the news comes on. Linda Staples, a Richmond, Va., mother of two, often watches the news with her daughters, ages 8 and 11, and has discussions with them, both about the facts of the case and about the broader issues raised about morality and marriage.
"I want them to know that even country leaders are not totally infallible and just to use it as an example that if you do something less-than-honest it will probably catch up to you," she says.
Her 11-year-old daughter, Amy, says she understands what is going on with the president: "He liked another woman, and ... he was telling people that he didn't."
Across the continent, in Encino, Calif., Jay Johnson, a father of two sons ages 15 and 11, says his family has discussed the Lewinsky matter, and that while the honesty issue is really important, he's more disturbed by how everybody is blaming someone else for the mess.
Mr. Johnson says he and his wife "just try to say you've got to own up to what you did, you can't blame somebody else for your actions."
Johnson's 11-year-old son, Taylor, watched a recording of Clinton's speech on Tuesday, and was surprised by it. "I thought he would even go so far as to lie in ... court," says Taylor.
The seventh-grader adds that he's "a little bit disgusted" by the parade of women claiming unseemly behavior by the president.
And on the Lewinsky matter, Taylor seems more than a little disgusted: "Someone who is running diplomatic matters (and) looks after the well-being of every person in the United States, he should've been thinking what he was doing."
"But in the Oval Office!" he adds. "That's very low to do it in the Oval Office."
For some parents, addressing the Lewinsky situation can be further complicated by their attitudes about how the president has performed his job, aside from his personal conduct. A strong majority of Americans, in fact, continue to tell pollsters they believe Clinton is doing a good job, even if they don't think much of his character.
Bob Schwebel, a psychologist in Tucson, Ariz., and the father of two children, ages 5 and 8, has generally tried to shield his kids from the news, and was taken aback recently when his eight-year-old son, Frank, came out with this statement: "Maybe we would have been better off with Bob Dole as president."
Mr. Schwebel used that comment as an opportunity to talk about some of the positive things Clinton has accomplished as president, even if he's made serious mistakes in his private life.
"I didn't want him to lose confidence in the government," says Schwebel.
Cate LaFarge, a 16-year-old from Nantucket, Mass., says she's not sure one can make that clear a distinction between the public and the private with Clinton's behavior. "It should be private, but he's a public official and he occupies a public office," she says. "I feel like we've all been misled - his family and the American people."