, February 2000

    In the Trenches With Bruce Kluger
    Bridgette & Bill

    By Bruce Kluger

    Teach your children well
    Their father's hell did slowly go by.
    And feed them on your dreams
    The one they pick's the one you'll know by.
                           —Graham Nash, 1970

    Last night, I was working at the computer
    while listening to the background clatter of
    talking heads on TV, a gaggle of analysts
    swapping predictions about Election 2000,
    and wondering if a new President can lead
    the nation’s children down the path of
    righteousness. Suddenly one of the pundits,
    a member of the religious right, began bemoaning the state of the nation’s morality.
    Specifically, he was picking on everyone’s favorite kick-child: television.

    “And I’ll tell you what,” the zealot announced, his face red and his finger wagging.
    “Back when the White House was engulfed in that sex scandal, I was so appalled by
    what I heard on the TV every night, that I had to send my children out of the living
    room. That’s when I decided never to let them watch the evening news again.”

    I suppose this bit of pious posturing on was intended to give me pause, make me
    think about the nation’s decaying morality and how I, as a father, was required to
    protect my children from the devil’s grasp by following the good man’s example and
    unplugging our TV for good.

    But that’s not what I thought. Instead, the only thing that came into my head as
    Reverend Do-Right rambled on was, “Gee, what unimaginative parenting.”

    It’s strange, but these days it seems the more sophisticated mass communication
    gets, the more we hear about how our children need to be shielded from the world
    that’s swirling around them. One minister tells us Brokaw is banished from his home
    for good; another expert confesses she’s switched her kids to home study to assure
    that they’re not exposed to worrisome role models like Tom Sawyer and Anne
    Frank; still another tells us a Teletubbie is deviant.

    What a waste of time. As well meaning as all of these efforts are, isn’t it easier to
    walk our children through the minefield of the modern world, rather than lock them
    away from it? So what if things occasionally get messy? Life is messy. Deal with it.

    Don’t get me wrong. As far as I’m concerned the good Reverend can replace his
    Sony Trinitron with a Waring blender and spend the news hour reading Louisa May
    Alcott to his brood—that’s his business. But the real point is, regardless of their
    cable or Internet access, children will always find out what’s going on in the world—
    somehow—and I’m convinced it’s better to provide them with specific answers to
    their specific questions, however simplified or bleached or abridged, than keep
    them wondering. After all, a child left scratching his head is an opportunity missed.

    As it turns out, back in ’98 I had a relatively easy time explaining the White House
    fiasco to my then three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Bridgette. The story had
    broken not long after she had begun watching the home video of Pinocchio;
    consequently, when Bridgey noticed a photograph of an obviously perturbed
    President on the front page of our morning paper, we were able to discuss the
    whole matter in less than twenty seconds:

    Me: Look, the President’s sad.
    Bridgette: Why?
    Me: He’s in trouble.
    Bridgette: Why?
    Me: He told a lie.
    Bridgette: Like Pinocchio?
    Me: Yes.
    Bridgette: Is he going to get punished?
    Me: As a matter of fact, yes, he is.
    Bridgette: Oh. [Pause] Can I have a Chiclet?

    That was it. No muss, no fuss, no cigar, no blue Gap dress. Lucky for me, this
    morality lesson—in the form of a puppet-boy and a do-gooder cricket—was all she
    needed to understand the Chief Executive’s woes. In fact, she was so satisfied with
    our exchange about Clinton’s predicament that she didn’t even ask why his nose
    didn’t grow. That, she understands, is make-pretend.

    But as we all know, the real lesson here doesn’t begin and end at 1600
    Pennsylvania Avenue. Children are confronted everyday with complex, grown-up
    issues that go beyond perjury, marital infidelity and partisan politics. And as
    parents, we can choose either to shelve the discussions for later, or use our
    imaginations to give the curious, wide-eyed child a nibble of truth to chew on.

    I choose the latter. Over the course of her little life, Bridgette has asked me
    questions about homelessness, prison, even war—and I have looked upon these
    queries less as danger zones and more as opportunities to understand the way my
    kid’s mind works: The concept of homelessness, for example, finally sank in for
    Bridgette when I explained that the homeless man on the corner didn’t have his own
    bed to sleep in—this soon after Bridgette graduated to her own “big girl’s bed”;
    prison was easy: “it’s the big time-out;” and war is just like those fights Jason and
    Donny have in school all the time, only much, much bigger.

    Look, I’m not claiming I have all the answers. In fact, as the days pass and Bridgette
    keeps getting smarter I can practically hear her conjuring up the stumpers that will
    eventually render me mute. But for now I enjoy being there for her with the answers.
    In fact, I’ll miss it when she begins figuring things out for herself.

    But if she expects me to explain Linda Tripp to her she’s got another thing coming.
Bridgey's kid sis, Audrey, with morning paper.