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WHEN KIDS WANT TO KNOW ABOUT THE PRESIDENT

usually after the hospital foolishly allows us to leave with a newborn -- we discover a basic about parenting:

It boils down to about an even dozen tasks, done over and over and over.

Like reading "Pat the Bunny" so much that we absently begin patting co-workers lightly on the head.

And diapering, wiping, waking, feeding, rocking -- over and over and over.

We get used to it.

But explaining the sexual behavior of the president of the United States -- over and over and over?

That one we never really get used to.

A few months ago, when it was just Paula Jones on the scene, it was easy to think we had the problem solved:

"What did the president do, Mom?" asked the 8-year-old.

"They say he had a girlfriend a long time ago, even when he was married. And when you're married, you're not supposed to have a boyfriend or girlfriend."

Conversation over.

Simplistic? Maybe. But it suited the child, who has not yet grasped the essence of sex itself, much less all the elegant nuances brought to it by the 42nd president of the United States.

Now, however, with Monica Lewinsky and Kathleen Willey elbowing their way into the nation's headlines, the sexual nuances themselves are the focus of the questions.

It isn't just that the child is asking again; it's what he's asking about. It's enough to drive a parent to attempted distraction.

"What's oral sex?"

"Well, it's . . . hey, look at this, a 'Rugrats' marathon!"

And how long can that last? Not long at all.

The fact is, intelligent kids need intelligent answers. And if parents know anything, we know children sniff out and reject half-truths as fast as they sniff out and reject icky dinners even before they're out of the oven.

So out-and-out lying and saying, "I don't know" when it comes to pointed questions -- "Why did he touch her breast?" "What's 'fondling genitals' mean?" -- is not the answer.

Maybe what is the answer, then, is to talk about a bigger picture here.

Not just possible sexual behavior without permission -- but possible sexual behavior outside of marriage.

We can't expect children to understand the urgency of sexual heat. But we can expect them to understand the sacredness of it -- and where it belongs, and for what purpose.

Look, the basics about oral sex our kids will hear about soon enough -- unfortunately -- and they will be extremely glad and grateful it did not come from Mom and Dad.

But the basics about honesty, commitment and trustworthiness can -- and should -- come now. And absolutely from Mom and Dad.

And absolutely, we can find this an excellent chance to drive home, in clear language, the meaning of commitment and integrity.

"Listen, I'm just glad I don't have to explain arms-for-hostages," says a friend.

"Talk about immoral! 'Well, what the president did, honey, was give weapons to our enemies -- weapons that could kill us -- so that he could bring some people back to America and win an election.' "

Point taken. And really, it's one that could be made as far back as the presidency reaches.

Imagine trying to explain why the president kept slaves and made babies with them.

Or bombed a bunch of people the day after Christmas.

Or ordered friends to break into an office, set up spy equipment, then lie about it all.

Thinking back on it all certainly doesn't lighten the load '90s parents face. But it sure does put the Oval Office in perspective. And maybe even make one yearn for the presidency of fumbling, bumbling, well-meaning George Bush, whose most memorable gaffe was simply not being able to keep his dinner down in Japan.

Imagine that conversation with an 8-year-old:

"What did the president do?"

"Oh, he just threw up -- you know, like you did after eating all that junk at the movies."

Conversation over.

Oh, bliss.

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