Stop using our children

Don't tell me the president's sexual liaisons are the most important national issue we have to discuss with our children.

By Sherrilyn A. Ifill
Published February 4, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

From Rep. George Gekas' immigrant grandma to the soldiers on the shores of Normandy, the House members at the Senate trial of President Clinton have employed countless emotional images to support their relentless effort to remove him from office. The most disturbing among these are the repeated references to our children, and how we talk with our children about Clinton's misdeeds. In the impeachment hearings before the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Mary Bono was said to have scored a victory against the president's counsel when she chose to ask only one question of counsel Gregory Craig. "What," she asked, "do you tell your children?" This exchange and the ad nauseam focus by public figures and media columnists on how we, as parents, should talk with our children about Clinton's sexual liaison with Monica Lewinsky is an alarming reminder of how narrow a world many of these people choose to live in. It's also a painful reminder of how America prioritizes the importance of its national problems.

Many of America's parents are having very difficult conversations with their children, indeed. Some must explain to their children why there will be no dinner tonight. Other parents must tell their children that they can't play outside because of gunfire. Teachers must explain to students why they have to share old textbooks, and why they have to walk through a metal detector to enter their schools. To those Americans, the sanctimony and rehearsed earnestness of Bono's question to Craig only reveal how very out-of-touch or deliberately obtuse she and others are when they refer to discussions about the Clinton affair as among the most difficult ones American parents are having with their children.

Without question, the most difficult conversation I had with my child during the past year centered on the lynching of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. Try explaining to your child why two white men tied a black man to a pickup truck and drove him around until he was dismembered. I explained what happened and tried to provide some historical context, without scaring the hell out of her. But she was scared and angry, and rightly so. Lynching, and America's hideous history of racial violence, is a scary and difficult reality to face. Talking with her about how to positively use both her fear and anger was a critically important parenting moment for me.

There were other difficult conversations I had with my daughter as well. Among those, Clinton's affair fell way below the lynching of Byrd, the murder of gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, the starving Sudanese child pictured in our local newspaper, the embassy bombings in Africa and our retaliatory bombing in Sudan and Afghanistan. And explaining who Monica Lewinsky was proved far easier than answering my daughter's repeated questions about homelessness. How I wish that Bono and other public figures had publicly agonized over these conversations with their children!

I suspect that many parents -- particularly those entrusted to lead our country in Washington -- did not talk in any detailed way with their children about the lynching of James Byrd. I imagine that many of them turn away from the opportunity to talk with their children about hunger, and why some children have more Barbie dolls than they can play with, while others have no Christmas presents at all. Yet these are the discussions that will shape our children's sense of responsibility to and engagement with the world around them -- much more so than whether they understand that it was wrong for the president to break his marriage vows. By not treating these issues with the same gravity as we do the president's sexual conduct, we send a dangerous but clear message to our children about our national priorities. During 1998, more than 8,000 hate crimes were committed in our country, the vast majority of them racially motivated. Can we as parents make time to talk with our children about perjury and sexual fidelity, but not about racial violence?

Without question, trying to help our children understand this whole impeachment mess is a delicate and often complicated exercise. It's important that our children understand how their government works (or doesn't), and that they understand the conduct that is the focus of the current inquiry. But it's also true that America is a country beset by many other profound problems and troubling contradictions that are more difficult to explain to our children, perhaps because we adults are often anxious to avoid grappling with these issues ourselves.

America reveals a great deal about its values by how it engages its children. As they play out their increasingly insular drama in the well of the Senate, those who cynically invoke our obligations to our children as support for their case against the president would do well to remember that America's parents are at home, faced with the truly difficult work of helping our children grasp our nation's most complex and critical problems.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill

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Bill Clinton Paul Shirley U.s. Senate