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The First Lady's Family Values : Parenting: Hillary Clinton is just like all mothers of 15-year-olds-- sort of. She, too, grapples with all the tough issues. And then some.


WASHINGTON — So Hillary Clinton, what do you think about sex education and teen pregnancy?

"A mother of a teen-ager is probably the worst person to ask!"

And then, "My own theory is don't do it until you're 21, and then don't tell me about it."

Clearly the First Lady was being jocular, but she was also expressing the dilemma of many parents of teen-age girls when she had a 70-minute "conversation" on Tuesday with 30 journalists from around the country. The meeting was held in the White House Blue Room, where Clinton sipped tea and spoke informally with fellows from the University of Maryland's Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families.

After a couple of quips, Clinton moved quickly into serious discourse on a wide array of family issues. Her observations ranged from bewilderment over "why we are so obsessed with sex and sex education in this country" to the suggestion that "sex has been around for a long time. I just wish we could relax a little, and talk about it with our children when they can understand it, which is when they are very young."

But even though she believes that "kids are naturally curious," she issued a firm condemnation of teen-age sex.

During the meeting, Clinton drew from a wealth of information, including a 1991 pastoral letter, "Putting Families First," published by the National Council of Catholic Bishops.

Among the topics the First Lady addressed were:

* Corporate downsizing and the "grave disservice" done to families when businesses overlook how seriously overwhelmed families can be by job loss or restructuring.

* The "false debate," waged with "increasing ferocity," that has made government "the target of everything that is wrong with families." Without denying the impact of government policies on the family, Clinton said, "Clearly there is more than enough accountability to go around."

* The well-documented ability of teen-agers to test the limits of parental authority, much as preschoolers like to lean over the top of the stairs when their parents are at the bottom. With adolescents, the First Lady said, "if you don't do anything to stop them, hey, it's 'Lord of the Flies' time."

* The "terrible Hobson's choice" faced by working parents whose child care is less than adequate. "I have seen places where people are forced to leave their babies where I wouldn't leave my cat," she said.

In a lighter moment, she said children's issues are marginalized because "children not only can't vote, they can't take legislators duck hunting." And she indirectly responded to recent remarks by Republican presidential contender Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) about loose values reflected by Hollywood.

"It's such a hypocrisy for people in this town to talk about sex in movies when sex is used to sell everything," Clinton said.

She deflected inquiries about conversations that might have gone on in the Executive Mansion about welfare reform, in light of congressional bills on the subject.

"Well, I don't talk about discussions in the White House," she said.

But, again indirectly, she took a stab at proposed block grants for states, referring to efforts in the 1980s to direct federal funds intended for families and children to the states.

"They built prisons, they built bridges, they built homes for the elderly because the nursing-home lobby took care of that--everything but taking care of children," she said.

On the subject of welfare, she described most mothers on public assistance as loving and caring toward their children, but also "overwhelmed and resentful, and not sure how to get out." She echoed her husband's call for time limits on welfare payments, and proposed that if there are not enough jobs to go around in the private sector, "I think we ought to put [welfare mothers] to work in the public sector--not for pay, necessarily."

Welfare mothers in her home state of Arkansas had benefited from a highly structured parent training program modeled after an Israeli system, the First Lady observed. Similar efforts are in place elsewhere, she said, but little is done to coordinate or replicate those that succeed.

"In the current political climate, it's every family for themselves," she said. "It's 'push those mothers into the work force, get them off welfare' " as quickly as possible. "I think we pay a very big price."

On the other hand, the First Lady said, the rights of children should sometimes supersede those of their parents. In situations where children are bounced from foster home to foster home--or "where kids are found in abandoned cars, living with their mother and her latest boyfriend--I think there should come a time when certain parental rights should be terminated. That is a really harsh thing to say, and many people have attacked me by saying I was advocating the breakup of families. Nothing could be further from the truth."

The First Lady expressed amazement about what she termed illogical use of existing public resources. "Let's privatize child care," she said, "but do it in the school buildings."

She came to the defense of fathers, lamenting the "double-edged message" that is sent when fathers are ridiculed on television and elsewhere. Rather, she advocated "anything you can do to promote the idea of fatherhood as a great adventure," encouraging a joint commitment to child-rearing by mothers and fathers.

But the failure of fathers to put in equal time on the home front is "an age-old problem, and not even an American problem," she said. "How do you keep fathers from going out in search of whales, going out West, I don't know, joining the Crusades? I mean, this is not a new problem."

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