How many of you parents out there have an emergency plan in place?
Not an escape route in case of fire, but a damage control blueprint for the next time we find ourselves in the midst of a national food fight about, um, certain matters that defy explanation to small children, and I don't mean Social Security.It may seem a little late to be raising the subject considering the pace at which events have overtaken us. But I'd argue otherwise.
The Clinton-Jones-Lewinsky-Starr-Tripp saga has moved in two directions at once: outward, like a wine stain on a tablecloth; and downward, like dirty laundry through a chute.
Just because everyone's talking so publicly about such raunchy things doesn't mean young kids are any more ready to understand them.
So parents really need a strategy. I didn't have one this time, which left me searching.
Looking back with the kind of hindsight the Supreme Court might have wished for when it ruled that a sexual harassment case against a sitting president wouldn't prove too much of a distraction, I've come up with a few basic rules for next time. They wouldn't work with older kids, of course (I'm thinking of the 12-year-old girl who, after a CNN report, pronounced everyone's behavior "immature.") But for, say, ages 8 and under, they ought to be sufficient.
One: Operate on a strictly need-to-know basis.
When my 7-year-old noticed that I was obsessing over the news even more than usual, she finally asked what was going on. I told her some people were saying the president had told a lie and he was saying that he'd told the truth.
That was enough, but only for one day. The next day she asked what this supposed lie was about.
Two: Choose words slowly and carefully.
Well, I said, some people say he had . . . and here was my first swerve. What were my choices in completing this sentence? Sex? An affair? Either one opened a path I really didn't want to go down. So I searched for a few seconds and then settled on . . . "a girlfriend."
She waited expectantly.
You know, I continued, married people aren't supposed to have girlfriends or boyfriends, just their wife or husband. Some people are saying the president had a girlfriend, but he says he didn't.
Then she wanted to know if his wife believed him. Yes, I replied, she says she believes him.
Next question: So if his wife believes him, why don't other people?
Here was my next swerve, but only because I wasn't thinking need-to-know. I almost said that lots of stories had circulated for years about all the president's girlfriends.
Instead, I said there was this young woman named Monica who told her good friend she was the president's girlfriend, although that didn't mean it was true. Anyway, this good friend was secretly tape recording the conversation. And then the friend played the tapes for some people, and pretty soon the whole country knew.
My daughter was horrified.
Four: Look for teachable moments.
This seemed a good time to start a discussion about telling lies, believing lies, sharing secrets and being very careful about whom you trust.
All in all, it turned out OK - but I have a feeling we're not out of the woods yet. As for how these rules will hold up if the going gets any rougher, I guess I'll find out when she comes home asking about Social Security.