Young need honest answers on scandal Children: Experts advise parents to keep answers simple and direct to help youngsters understand the various issues in the news

The Starr Report

September 12, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

As the public gets its chance to digest the voluminous reports concerning the relationship between President Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky, one group is still hungering for answers -- the nation's children.

Considering the saturation news coverage, talk radio, daytime television, the Internet and conversations of adults and peers, children have been bombarded with potentially confusing information about the scandal.

What they've heard has filled them with questions -- some that will make their parents squirm. From lurid sexual descriptions to matters of truthfulness and repentance, families face a potential minefield each time they approach the dinner table.

How is a parent to talk about these things? Dr. Leon Rosenberg, professor of pediatric psychology at Johns Hopkins Hospital, advises with one watchword:

Honesty.

"They really have to speak honestly to the child," says Rosenberg, who also serves as director of the Johns Hopkins Children's Mental Health Center. "It doesn't need to be encyclopedic, but the answers should be honest and simple."

In an interview yesterday, Rosenberg gave suggestions for how families might deal with the Clinton-Lewinsky affair:

Question: How should parents tell their children about the Starr report?

They have to gear their statements to the developmental level of the child -- not just age but the child's level of understanding. Every child at age 7 is not the same. A parent knows if they have a sophisticated 7-year-old or not.

The parents have to be prepared to answer the questions the child will come up with at whatever level. The parent must not avoid the questions.

Keep things simple. Wait and see if the child has another question.

What do I tell a young child?

The young child -- say, below age 9 -- is going to be more concerned about claims the president told a lie. Most times it's the older child who will come up with the sexual questions. If the question is about lying, you need to be very honest that this grown adult, this important man, apparently told a serious lie.

It's not a bad idea for children to understand that adults can make a mistake. You have to avoid frightening the child. You can say everyone is concerned about the lie, but we don't want to tell the child lying results in massive punishment, just that it's bad and it results in trouble.

If a sexual question comes up from a 5-year-old and he wonders about oral sex, it's not a bad idea to make it clear that some things will be better understood when they're older.

If he already knows what's involved, you have to say, yes, that does happen. It's something that you'll better understand when you get older, and it's something people don't have to do and that no one should ever ask you to do this.

My child thinks of presidents as heroes. How can I give the proper context to Clinton's behavior?

A kid has to understand that every human being, no matter how important they appear, is only human and all humans are able to make mistakes and this president made one whopper of a mistake.

To some degree, it's upsetting to children that adults aren't perfect, but it's not bad for them to get used to that and learn. Their parents aren't perfect either.

What about the child who is entering puberty?

What I did with my children was to sit them down at age 9 and over the details of human sexuality. I talked about homosexuality, anal sex, oral sex, whatever. I think they should know what these things are and know they don't have to do them.

You have to cover it all. The kids are not upset. They are not frightened. It gives cause for a lot of laughter.

What about a teen-ager?

You have to wait and see what the older child asks. There's nothing that requires a parent to sit down and tell them all these things. All teens will not have questions about sexual behavior. They may know all about it.

But they may be very interested in relationship questions -- like the relationship between the president and his wife. What kind of relationship is this where this intern is performing these acts on -- him? You can tell them it doesn't sound like a love relationship.

If they ask why Mrs. Clinton stays with her husband, you should be honest: You haven't got a clue. But I can say that if I ever did these things, I'd expect your mother to be hurt and I'd expect her to pack her bags and not stay with me.

Should some children be shielded from television news reports or reading news stories about the scandal?

If a kid gets upset by this, it's reasonable to take the material away from them. But as a parent, it's up to me to find out if it's bothering them.

You can't suddenly tell your child not to walk in during the evening news. That's suspicious. If you make it a big secret, it makes it all the more disturbing.

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