Eager Minds, Big Ear
By Claudia Wallis
(TIME, February 9) -- "Mom, what's oral sex?" For my 11-year-old son, the steamy, sordid swamp currently engulfing the White House presented a ripe opportunity for sex education, as it has for so many American kids with big ears and eager minds. As a parent, I've always believed that a child curious and capable enough to frame a straightforward question deserves a straightforward answer. Gauging the depth and breadth of the answer is the tough part.
The definition I gave my son elicited a brief "Eeww," followed by a thoughtful silence. About right, I figured. Infinitely more difficult is gauging what's about right on this topic for readers of Time For Kids, which goes to 1.7 million schoolchildren. While other journalists rushed feverishly to cover this too-juicy story, my staff and I weighed the pros and cons of ignoring it entirely.
Since our magazine circulates in elementary schools, where it is used to teach current events, we consulted with educators. "Don't go there," they said with frightening unanimity. A principal in Dallas reminded me that in many school districts, teachers need permission from parents if they are going to raise the subject of sex in class. "Teachers can lose their jobs over this kind of thing," she warned.
As the first week of the scandal came to a close, we decided to stick with a cover story on the Pope in Cuba. Teachers thanked us via E-mail. Only one child wrote in requesting the story ("We all know about it, and would be excited if you wrote about it in the next issue").
By Week Two, the scandal was harder to ignore. Surely by now many of our readers had begun to wonder, "Who is Monica, and what did the President do with her?" Others may have been puzzled by their parents' hanging on to the President's boring old speech on Tuesday night.
We scheduled a cover story on that boring old speech. Teachers appreciate this kind of civics lesson. Then, cautiously, we framed a "Presidential Problems" sidebar. Question No. 1: How to describe the President's alleged liaison? We decided to say the married President was accused of having a "girlfriend"--a word as innocent or suggestive as a child makes it out to be. Words we wanted to avoid: adultery, affair and, of course, sex. Who knows how long it would take a teacher to regain control of giggling fourth-graders after that three-letter bomb exploded in class?
Picture of Monica? No. The facts are not yet known, and a photo was just too concrete. Besides, kids would get into distracting discussions of whether or not Lewinsky was pretty.
Making the speech the big story seemed right, putting Clinton in the role that makes kids comfortable: leader, shaper of America's future. "There are very few heroes for kids today," points out Marissa Rosoff, a child-welfare and attendance specialist for the Burbank, Calif., public schools. "What's sad about this mess," she says, "is that kids like Bill Clinton: he's young, he likes Big Macs, he's got a dog."
Is he now lost as a hero? Can a good President be a bad role model? These are the kinds of questions we hope our young readers will debate.
Claudia Wallis is the founding editor of Time For Kids.