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Birds, Bees and Bill

As Parents and Teachers Are Finding Out, Children Also Have Questions About the Washington Sex Scandal That Swirls Around President Clinton

January 28, 1998|SUSAN HOWLETT and STEVE EMMONS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Children, who last week may have been asking why the sky is blue, this week are asking about the latest news from Washington.

"My oldest asked me about oral sex yesterday," said one exasperated mother as she drove her son to McGaugh Elementary School in Seal Beach. "There's no getting away from it."

Inside the school, teachers about to distribute the day's newspapers were removing the numerous articles about the simmering White House sex scandal.

"Even though it's news, it's not appropriate," said one teacher.

"The whole thing is just plain embarrassing," said Maria Loera, 39, who was waiting for her daughter at Garden Grove High School.

"I'm no prude, but my daughter is only 15. . . . I'm not crazy about that 'Melrose Place' show, but in a way, it's not even as bad. . . . At least those people aren't real. At least those people aren't the president, for God's sake."

President Clinton must face the questions from the news media and attorneys, but what about parents who must deal with the curiosity of their own children?

"I thought it was the perfect way to make an example of how much harm comes out of being unfaithful," said Sarah Madsen of Stanton, mother of two teenagers. "Then it got into all of this oral sex stuff and semen on dresses, and I was sorry I even brought it up."

Justin D. Call, professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics at UC Irvine and one of the founders of child psychiatry, says he, too, is concerned.

"Perhaps this is a good time for us to turn the television off for at least the next week," he said during a telephone interview. "TV reaches children much more readily than what's said in the newspaper. There are real people talking. The visual aspect is always dominant over other aspects."

Older children are very interested in the scandal, said Martha McIntosh, who teaches government at Dana Hills High School. She said her students haven't been so animated since the Anita Hill sexual harassment hearings. McIntosh has encouraged discussion, but without any explicit sexual terms.

But the younger students in Kevin McCann's American history class at Carr Intermediate School in Santa Ana won't be discussing the scandal at all.

"What I've done is take this opportunity to talk about the pope in Cuba," McCann said. "But I tell the students to keep their eye on the news for 'the other things' going on. I leave it at that."

Discussing sex is something children should do with their parents, he said.

But parents who don't want to discuss the subject should not feel guilty, according to Call.

"Parents shouldn't be attempting to do so unless they're quite comfortable with it. You can say, 'I don't want to talk about that now. You're too young to understand. You have to be much older.' Parents have a right not to respond."

And sometimes responding in a limited way is all that's needed. When his 8-year-old son asked at breakfast, "What did the president do wrong?" one Irvine father answered simply: "He might have told a lie or asked someone else to tell a lie."

Call said that parents willing to answer their children's sexual questions should not lecture them about values--mainly because it doesn't work.

"Children have a hard time dealing with sexual matters because it's connected with bodily experience, and they don't have a very good vocabulary for that. Also, it's filled with emotion and sometimes anxiety. Children have a hard time remembering what their parents say. It's a charged subject for both children and parents," he said.

"The most important thing the child will learn from the parent is not what they say, but the parent's attitude and feelings about it. That is the message that will mean the most to them. And they will know how you feel about it, even if you don't tell them."

Call said parents should realize that it's all right for a child's curiosity to be aroused.

"When a child asks a question, they're usually ready for the answer. . . . Usually it's better to give short explanations and wait for additional questions," he said.

But when the question springs from a TV commentator, not from the child's curiosity, the child's innocence is threatened. And innocence, said Call, "should be preserved as long as you can. The innocence of childhood is very precious.

"It's almost like destroying a child's sense of wonder. They should learn slowly and gradually, according to their own experiences and thoughts. They don't need the intimate details of everything. Forming their own ideas and theories enhances life for them."

And, it's still too early to tell whether all this will have a lasting impact on children, said David L. Kirp, acting dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and a specialist in ethics.

"We don't know how long this is going to go on. Maybe months from now we'll be reading about DNA tests of the president's underwear. If it gets to that, it's hard to imagine it wouldn't have a lasting effect. If it's as protracted as Watergate, it will have an effect on kids and how they look at government."

Just what the effect will be depends on how parents and teachers explain it all, Kirp said. "Kids are going to talk about this, that's a given. How they talk about it depends on the cues they get from adults.

"If I were explaining this to a kid, I'd want to take my cue from what questions they asked me. I don't think you can avoid the "S-word," but I think you can get to it the long way around."

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