On Psychology

Jewish World Review Sept. 3, 1998 / 12 Elul, 5758

Dr. Wade Horn

How much should we tell the kids about The Bill-n-Monica Show?

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

AS A CLINICAL CHILD PSYCHOLOGIST, a question I have been asked a lot lately is what parents should say to their children about the Bill and Monica affair. The answer is: It depends.

It depends, first of all, on whether or not your child is actually asking you questions about the Clinton-Lewinsky matter. Believe it or not, most children don't share our obsession with Bill and Monica. Younger children especially don't pay much attention to the news. To most young children, news emanating from the TV and radio is about "grown up stuff," in other words "booooring!" Except for the fact that its keeping them from watching their favorite TV shows, it is not especially relevant to their world.

I recall, for example, as an eight year old during the Cuban missile crisis having a vague sense that something was happening somewhere that had my parents concerned. But I was too busy with the latest sports scores and second grade math homework to worry about some guy named Kruschev and a strange place called Cuba. My parents wisely allowed me my childhood innocence, accepting that it is parents, not children, that should worry about such things.

This doesn't mean you should jump to turn off the TV set whenever the news is on and your child enters the room. This may only make your child fear something really horrible is going on. Rather, simply go about your business matter-of-factly, and wait to see if your child seems particularly interested or concerned about something they overhear on the news.

And so it should be when it comes to discussing Bill Clinton's peccadillos with Monica Lewinsky. Especially with young children, parents should adopt a "if they don't ask, I won't tell" policy. Chances are, if your kids aren't asking you about it, they really aren't all that concerned. That's "grown up stuff," young children reason, "I've got more important things to think about."

But what's a parent to do if their child does ask about the President and Monica Lewinsky?

Its important to keep in mind that few children of any age are really very much interested in asking their parents about the mechanics of oral sex and the chemical composition of dress stains. Even if their questions come at you in this form, what children are really trying to sort out is how Bill Clinton's behavior, and our reaction to it, fits into their developing moral view of the universe. So don't take a child's questioning, "What did the President do?" as an invitation for a lecture on Sex Ed 101. Rather, understand that what your child is really trying to figure out is what is right and what is wrong, what is moral and what is immoral. How you should answer these questions depends upon your child's age.

Preschoolers are mostly concerned with whether or not a particular behavior is likely to be punished or rewarded. Preschoolers assume that good behavior gets rewarded and bad behavior gets punished. Consequently, when it comes to the Clinton-Lewinsky matter, what preschoolers will likely want to know, if they want to know anything at all, is "did the President do something bad" and "is the President going to be punished."

Your answers should be, "Yes, he lied to people." and "I hope so."

Trying to fuzzy up the second answer with "his embarrassment is punishment enough," or "sometimes grownups don't get punished for lying" will only confuse a preschooler. What they believe is that bad behavior should be punished.

They know that simply saying, "I'm sorry I lied about who spilled the milk," wouldn't (or shouldn't) be sufficient. They still have to clean up the mess. So, they reason, it should be with Presidents. To suggest otherwise will only be confusing to them.

As children enter the elementary school years, the preschooler's orientation toward rewards and punishments is replaced with a concern about rules. Although elementary-aged children understand the difference between an accident and intentional wrong-doing, they believe firmly in rules and accept that willfully breaking a rule is cause for punishment. To do otherwise would be "unfair."

One of the rules that children of this age understand is that lying is wrong. So what elementary school-aged children are likely to want to know is, "if its OK for the President to lie, why isn't it OK for me to lie too?" Your answer to this question should be, "It's not OK for either the President or you to lie. It is better to be honest. I wish the President had been honest. And I expect you to be honest too."

Things get even more complicated with teenagers (gee, big surprise). With the advent of adolescence, comes a desire to develop a personal set of values and moral beliefs.

Teenagers have come to understand that rules, even laws, are not necessarily absolute. Their struggle to develop a personal moral code is why matters of individual conscience and social justice emerge as major concerns during the teenage years.

It is with teenagers that the most interesting discussions about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair are likely to take place. "Are Presidents above the law, and if so, why?" "Is lying to prevent hurting family members more important than telling the truth?" "Does it matter if a President is a man of good private character?" These are not easy questions. The key with adolescents is to encourage them to offer their own thoughts and ideas, and to act as a sounding board for them.

We seem to be a nation obsessed with the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. But just because we may be obsessed, doesn't mean our children are as well. Forcing our kids to talk about it may do more harm than good. And if they do ask about it, we should provide answers that take into account their age and developmental level.

But most of all, we should keep in mind that what our kids are really concerned about is not the sex, but morality. Not with whether or not the dress stain matches Clinton's DNA, but whether what we say matches what we do. On that score, we all have a lot to answer for.

Starting with the President.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn