A chance to moralize with the kids Parents shouldn't evade questions raised by White House scandal

August 23, 1998|By Judy Oppenheimer

None of us is entirely comfortable talking about sex with children. It would be one thing if they waited for us to bring up the subject in a private setting, then simply sat there, quietly attentive.

But everyone who's ever had kids knows that's not how it works. They wait for a full audience - say, a crowded checkout line - before demanding at the top of their lungs to know why Jessica doesn't have a penis.

I remember some of my own kids' questions, all of which pointed up the vast gap between my explanations (which, of course, I had thought were complete) and their understanding.

"Mom, did you have sex yet this year?" "Can I watch the next time you and Daddy do it?" "When I'm older, will you take me to get the seeds?"

Little girls, at least those of my generation, were often horrified when faced with the raw facts. One of my friends confided that she had to be calmed down by an adult, who assured her, "It doesn't really hurt, and besides, you're kind of in a coma when it happens."

I don't know if little girls react like that today, but all I can say is, my little boys were far from repulsed - "enthralled" would be a better word. One of them peppered me with so many questions, off and on, that I was finally forced to come up with this proposition: "Someday, you're going to have a sex life, too, you know. What do you say I'll promise not to ask you about it, if you stop asking me about mine?" (This actually worked, and for the record, I've held up my end of the bargain).

But no one with kids avoids touchy questions completely, and now, with the presidential saga playing on every channel, I'm sure many parents of young children have been hit with plenty. And I'm the first to admit that I'm not sorry my own kids are in their 20s. It can't be easy answering a 7-year-old's curiosity about why a stain on a dress is so important, and about oral sex. I sympathize.

Still, I'm getting tired of hearing how awful all this is for the children. Sure, it's uncomfortable for us, and sure, it would be pleasant to have a president whose behavior was exemplary. Even one who could stay zippered-up in the Oval Office would be nice. But I see nothing wrong with parents being forced to discuss with their children questions of ethics and lying and betrayal and the far-reaching effects of lousy behavior. A bad example can serve good purposes, too.

Our kids are getting a good illustration of some of the oldest precepts in the book. What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive. Sooner or later, your sins will find you out. Character tells. If you lie often enough, no one will believe you when you tell the truth.

Natural laws are being played out here that children can understand, in part because they're not all that complicated. Acts do have consequences. Clinton has not gotten away scot-free, and there are a lot of people - citizens, friends, family, staffers - who are furious with him, because he lied, because he doesn't seem to be truly sorry, because he immediately started blaming someone else, and because he seems terribly angry that he was caught. No, a lot of us don't feel ready to forgive him. It's hard to forgive someone who doesn't seem remorseful.

These are things that children can understand. They know what it's like to do something wrong, they know what it's like to lie, they know what it's like to say you're sorry when you're not and wish everyone would just shut up and forget about it. They most certainly know what it's like to blame a tattler or a sibling or a pet in an attempt to escape punishment. In fact, I've never known a kid who wasn't good at that. And they sure know what it is like to feel terribly, terribly, sorry for yourself because you were caught. This, in some ways, is a situation perfectly attuned to a child's understanding. Explaining Watergate or Iran-Contra or Vietnam - that took some doing.

What Clinton did - originally, at least - had to do with sex, and we're all squeamish about sex to a degree. We suspect or know full well that, at least once in our lives, we've probably done something or other involving sex that we wouldn't be too pleased to see on the nightly news. In that sense, we're all culpable, all human.

But this sense of guilt is one of the things that gets in the way of our being able to discuss sexual behavior openly with our kids - that and the fact that none of us wants our kids to view us as sexual beings.

Yet we all are. And generally, one's sexual behavior, taken over a lifetime, probably offers as good a glimpse as any into one's true self. I defy the notion that sex is something that can be compartmentalized, set off from the main, that it's "just" sex, and not real life at all.

Clinton hasn't lied and weaseled and evaded and lied some more only about sex. He's done it about other things, too. This happens to be a graphic illustration of one of the less savory parts of his personality.

We need to get over the idea that it's our own protectiveness, our desire to shield our children, that makes us want to hide all this under the rug. We want to hide it because it makes us feel icky and creepy, and because it raises too many uncomfortable issues in our own minds. The story is out, and there is plenty here tailor-made for family discussions, the kind of talks that could affect our children's behavior. Frankly, it's too good an opportunity to miss.

Judy Oppenheimer is a freelance writer and a former senior writer at the Baltimore Jewish Times.

! Pub date: 8/23/98

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