ON THE EVE of the Clinton impeachment hearings in 1998, the Sexuality Information and Education Council sent out ''Ten Tips for Talking about the Starr Report with your Children.''
''The upcoming impeachment hearing,'' council president Debra Haffner advised, ''provides parents with a special opportunity to talk to their children about sexuality issues ... The question parents need to ask is ''Who do I want to tell my children about this sad situation?'' Another child on the playground? An acquaintance on the school bus? They are unlikely to tell your children the facts in a clear way. And only YOU can give YOUR children YOUR values.''
It's now 2003, and if the events of these last weeks don't provide parents with that special opportunity to talk to their children about the president and values such as truth, lies, and consequences, then I don't know what does.
So, with all due credit to the Sexuality Information and Education Council, here are ''Tips for Talking about President Bush with Your Children'':
Think about your values as they relate to this situation. What are your family's values about telling the truth? What would you do if your child lied to you and when you scolded him or her, he or she replied: ''I am not a fact-checker.'' Or added, ''Isn't it time to move on?''
Ask your children to tell you what words mean to them. Explain that words have consequences and lies can come in two, six or 16 words.
Clarify facts. Give short, age-appropriate answers. Explain that shifting strategies at damage control only lead to more unanswered questions. Make clear that even if facts are malleable for President Bush, they're not malleable in your home. Explain that even though the White House strategy may be to say whatever is necessary, even if they have to admit later that what they said the first time wasn't exactly true, you don't do it that way yourself.
Use these talks with your child to encourage good decision-making. Let them know that if they grow up to become president and lead a nation into war, the right thing to do is take responsibility for their words and acts. (This is a good opportunity to explain what the saying ''the buck stops here'' means.)
Use television news as a springboard for discussion. However, do not let children younger than 13 watch this coverage alone. It can be ugly and disturbing for children to watch the president and his aides scapegoat their subordinates with so little compunction.
Help your children understand the larger issues. Let them know that it's not just about 16 words. You could explain that there appears to be a pattern of dishonesty well beyond the uranium scandal that is extremely worrisome. Explain that the American people are entitled to the truth and they have a right to know if Bush, Vice President Cheney or any White House officials misrepresented the facts to justify war.
Keep the lines of communication open. Talk. Remember that this is not a one-time or a one-way discussion. Your children need your ongoing support in dealing with their president's tenuous relationship to the truth. Unfortunately, this sad situation is currently a fixed element of the political landscape they are growing up in.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation magazine.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company