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Child Psychologists Urge Straight Talk on Scandal

Development: There's no way to shield them from indelicate data, experts advise. It's best to answer all questions, no matter how uncomfortable.


Today, parents across the country will grapple with questions from their children about President Clinton's actions and the traumatic results they have produced.

No question should be too small, too uncomfortable, or too silly to answer, child development experts say.

Parents who want to protect their children's innocence, who want to shield them from the mass of indelicate data spewing forth, will be unable to do so, the experts assert. Children will hear about it anyway. They will talk about it with friends, neighbors, and the adults in charge of them during the school day.

It is far better for parents to talk with their children first, to answer their questions with care, to use the crisis as an opportunity for open dialogue about morals, ethics, the consequences of lying, and other issues involved, say those who deal with children's issues on a daily basis.

This is also a good moment for parents to impart their own family values; to honestly tackle ticklish questions from offspring who they may think are too young to be asking about such things.

"Just last night I had to sit down with Anton, my 13-year-old, and discuss how the cigar was used," says Robert R. Butterworth, a Los Angeles child psychologist. Anton's teacher at an L.A. magnet school had assigned the class to watch the news every night. Somehow, Anton got wind of the smoking cigar.

Butterworth says he gave clinical descriptions because that is what his son needed to know. "We have to remember that what parents may think is disgusting is just a curiosity that needs satisfying for kids. I was surprised to find out just how many kids his age are talking about this. They are surfing the Net, learning everything. They need clarification. And if they ask their parents and get no answers, then they have nowhere to get those answers except from sources that might confuse them more."

Susan Rosenthal, a pediatric psychologist at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, says there are good and bad ways to respond to children at moments like this.

Most important: Do not answer the question until you've asked the child how much he knows about the subject, and what more, specifically, he would like to know from you. "Sometimes parents respond too quickly, and create problems instead of solving them. Sometimes they give too detailed an answer; at other times they don't go deep enough to satisfy the child's curiosity. It's important to understand the nature and depth of your child's concerns before addressing them."

The other important technique to remember, she says, is to respond to your child's questions without emotion. "If you want to use this as a teaching opportunity, you need to explain quite calmly the logic of your thinking. Parents who storm around, saying 'Clinton's an idiot. Look how he ruined himself' will find their children tuning out," she says.

"They don't want to be lectured or pounced on," she adds. It is pointless to make dramatic pronouncements about morality, fidelity and other issues, even if you feel passionately about them. It is far better to point out that bad consequences usually result from bad actions, if that is how you feel, she says--to calmly tell what he did, and then what is happening as a result of what he did. Give the kids some freedom to mull that over and draw the conclusion for themselves.

Rosenthal and other psychologists say children are being affected in multiple ways by the Clinton crisis.

The younger ones have just been taught about the greatness of presidents; maybe they have learned about Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson. Teachers put these presidents on pedestals. It can be confusing when they see that the current president may have feet of clay, says Myron Dembo, professor of psychology at the USC school of education. "The number one lesson to learn in this instance is that all people can make mistakes. Here is a president who made one, and he is asking for forgiveness, is admitting what he did. He says he will never do it again."

Dembo adds that, depending on the child's age, this is a chance to point out that, if the president had told the truth from the beginning, these terrible consequences might not have occurred.

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