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Clinton Scandal Poses Kid Dilemma

January 24, 1998

The evening news was on and Laura Mooney was making dinner with her 12-year-old daughter Kara when the question came: ``Mom, did Bill Clinton do it?″

``It reminded me of how she responded to the O.J. (Simpson) trial. Kids want things in black and white. They want to know, `Is this true or not?‴ said the 44-year-old Seattle social worker. ``They’re looking for boundaries and a simplicity you wish you could offer them.″

For children, the scandal swirling around President Clinton raises a bewildering array of questions about sex, fidelity, truth and the foreign world of grown-ups. For parents, the allegations that Clinton had an affair with a 21-year-old intern have meant having to formulate clear answers on a murky topic.

There are both solvable and unsolvable mysteries in the tale of Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, things parents can tell their children with confidence and things they can’t even answer for themselves: Was he unfaithful? How will we know if he’s lying? Does that make him a bad person? A bad president?

``I said I thought that infidelity is separate from him being a good president,″ said Chris Zajak, a 46-year-old elementary school vice principal from Holyoke, Mass. ``We’ve had other presidents who have been worse and now they’re held up as icons. I said, we have to look more at the obstruction of justice.″

Zajak, who has two teen-agers, says she tried to emphasize that the accusations against the president have not been proven.

Regardless of how difficult the discussions are, child development experts say parents can’t shrink from them _ and maybe even should start them.

``In many ways I think it’s important for children to feel that their parents come from a perspective. It’s more important than the belief itself,″ said Judith Allik, an associate psychology professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

``One thing a parent might do is say, `There’s a lot going on. If you have any questions, I’m here to talk about it.′ Sometimes (children) don’t ask because they think it’s too sensitive or they don’t know how to ask,″ she said.

Virginia Sacchi, 42, of Flagstaff, Ariz., tells her two children that the president has an added responsibility: Poor behavior on his part reflects ``consequently on us as a country.″

Kate Sacchi, 13, sounds like she’s been listening.

Asked if President Clinton could still be a good president if he was unfaithful to his wife, she said this: ``It would affect the country badly if other countries didn’t respect us because our president was doing something like this. Even if he told the truth, it still wouldn’t be OK.″

In the McCoy household, the question arose after 9-year-old Patrice came home from a friend’s house and asked why the president would want to cheat on and lie to his wife?

``I was looking at this sweet, pure little face, who completely didn’t understand how someone could do these things. Does that mean I could cheat on her mother?″ said Sam McCoy, a 41-year-old paint store owner from Savannah, Ga. ``You wish there were easy answers. I sort of fudged it.″

For some parents, the saddest reaction from their children was no reaction _ the result of living in a society so aware of its own flaws that even elementary school students are already jaded.

``We’ve had a lot of dialogue about how in politics they try and tear people apart. My son hears these things and in a sense he’s become cynical,″ Mooney said of 15-year-old Sean. ``Even by kids who are good kids, kids whose lives are going pretty well who have no reason to be cynical, they hear something like this and it’s like, `So what else is new?‴

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