President and nation need the same mental space children do to contemplate right and wrong

When our boys were young and needed correction, we used a thinking stool. It was in the dining room within earshot of the kitchen. Their time-outs began with a firm reminder that they were a blessing to the family, and so they had the responsibility of finding how to act, speak, and think in a way that would be constructive. The goal was to regain their good humor and spirit of cooperation.

But the thinking stool also made a demand on my husband and me to use this interruption of household harmony as a time to really think through our responsibilities as parents.Were the rules that were broken too strict? Had we through neglect unwittingly accommodated their mistake? Were we making a demand on the child that we weren't willing to meet ourselves? How could we serve and support their goodness better?

The time it is taking to resolve the issues surrounding President Clinton have undoubtedly, made him feel as if he's on the national thinking stool, with ample mental space to reconsider his actions. But in scanning the multitude of responses to the situation, there are three things we need to be sure we're willing to consider: the professional relationship of men and women, the responsibility to successive generations, and the models of mankind we use for morality.

These are the things which raise the question: What was the relationship between Ms Lewinsky and Mr. Clinton supposed to be like?

When men and women come together in professional environments, it's an opportunity to see how natural it is to put off the extremes of gender stereotypes and find the balance of masculine and feminine qualities that we all have.

The quality of work in government and industry is improved when strength and resilience combine, when patience is not separate from good humor, and when compassion is coupled with a clear sense of direction.

Another thing which has been sobering to me about the situation is the missed opportunity of one generation communicating its best to another.

Besides the adultery issues, part of our public discomfort with the relationship was the near 30-year difference between the president and the intern. As each of us start to see the fruit of our professional experience, there is an implied responsibility of passing along the maturity of our perspective to those who will succeed us.

Alternatively there is a needed hope in seeing the fresh enthusiasm which our broad-minded youth bring to old institutions.

Most sobering for me as a parent is the barrage of unwanted information about sexual practices to which no child should be exposed.

But this raises a more fundamental point: What models of character are we upholding for civilization? The assumption that man is essentially a trapped animal who is incapable of resisting temptation is not accurate. If it were true, there is no reason to bother educating children, or striving to develop our talents, or supporting the development of the talents of others.

What the pornographic details of that relationship in the White House do is raise the question: Are we putting an undue burden on our public officials, our celebrities, and even TV characters? Are we allowing their lives to assume a greater impact on our moral and spiritual values just because the details of their lives are paraded unrelentingly before the public?

At breakfast the other morning I asked my 14-year-old if he felt that Clinton's casualness about sex somehow made him think it was OK to be that way too.

My son's puzzlement showed on his screwed up face: Why on earth would it? That's the question for us as a country. Have we committed ourselves to models of manhood that have been time-tested or are we flitting with the flicks of the TV news?

My son has come to know moral strength through his brother, grandpa, dad, uncles, Sunday school teachers, orchestra conductor, science teacher, and his best friends' parents. Those examples have been understood within the context of a Judeo-Christian legacy. He recognizes substance when he sees it.

It might seem surprising that my son thinks of the president with compassion. He knows the president messed up big time, but he also expresses disdain that the press has gone haywire with the details. He probably remembers that the major benefit of the thinking stool is that once the issues are clearly stated, you have the quiet to sort things through and commit yourself to constructive action.

The Congress and president deserve to have that kind of mental space to make decisions based on their highest sense of right. Meanwhile, let us tend to our own understanding of the basis of moral strength - and the responsibility for our own lives to be part of the forwarding of civilization.

* Lois Rae Carlson, an occasional Monitor contributor, lives in the Chicago area and is raising two boys.

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