The Impeachment Spectacle: What To Tell the Children

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Media strangers now enter our homes to answer our children's queries. The real question is: What have the children learned?

Across the nation, children have returned to school from their break while the U.S. Senate prepares to try an impeached president of the United States.

I was one of a handful of people who decided to watch the impeachment hearings instead of completing my holiday shopping. When I turned on the TV on the day of the congressional vote, ABC anchorman Peter Jennings was interviewing a pundit. "How old are your children?" Mr. Jennings asked. "And what are you going to tell them about all this?"

This embarrassing question has harried parents and educators since the Kenneth W. Starr investigation exposed President Clinton's seamy White House affair a year ago. The pundit, however, didn't hesitate in his answer. While he certainly regretted the present situation, it created a wonderful opportunity to teach his children about the Constitution, to explain the rule of law, to explicate the intricacies of a congressional proceeding.

The question, along with the commentator's high-road answer, sidesteps the real issue. The ubiquitous nature of the modern media, with 24-hour cable news and instant satellite feeds, coupled with the penetrating force of the Internet, means that media strangers now enter our homes to answer our children's queries. The real question is: What have they learned?

As I listened to the proceedings unfold, I was aghast, like so many Americans, at the swirl of nastiness, the flow of partisan bickering, and the mean-spiritedness that formed the scaffolding of so much of the debate. With shrill rhetoric and wagging fingers pointed across the aisle, Republicans and Democrats alike seemed locked in an absurd and vicious battle royal.

It didn't take me long to recognize what children would learn: that adults--even elected officials--can act just as childishly as they do. As the head of a private elementary school, I witness the same behavior every day on the playground. Skirmishes erupt, arguments pierce the air, and disagreements cloud the issues. Children are naturally feisty and even venomous at times. They learn early on how to use words' jagged edges to harm.

When their disagreements become overheated, we separate them and give them a timeout. Red-faced and sputtering, they accuse one another of misbehavior, wave their hands excitedly in the air, and struggle to comprehend their peers' point of view. They can only see that they have been mistreated, and they know that fair play--at least their version of fair play--demands justice. Their code of conduct requires punishment.

There aren't many shades of gray in children's hard and competitive play. When disputes emerge, they salve their hurt by trying to prove who is right and who is wrong. They rarely think about mercy.

I don't know how much children have been wandering by the TV during this political free-for-all, or how long they lingered. I do know that many students have been shocked. They want to see adults as being above the playground fray.

With wisdom and compassion, teachers in elementary classrooms everywhere guide children over many years, training them to understand and respect multiple perspectives, to listen, to argue passionately but not violently, to manage ambiguity, to be tolerant, to forgive.

We don't permit lying or bullying, though we recognize it happens, and we would expect children to take responsibility for their behavior. We know the differences of opinion will always erupt, sometimes with explosive fury. It is our job to teach them how to act when they are angry or hurt.

We also wouldn't abide the uncivil behavior that often, but needlessly, follows. Disagreements can exist, we tell them, but without rancor. Justice need not merely be about punishment; it can also build a bridge to mercy.

Those are the lessons I wish my students had learned during the recent debates. They already know the power that words have to puncture and wound. They also need to learn how to use them to heal.

Perhaps our politicians have something to learn from the nation's schools.

Bruce Shaw is the director of Shady Hill School, an independent, nonsectarian school with 480 students, preschool to grade 8, in Cambridge, Mass.

Vol. 18, Issue 18, Page 40

Published in Print: January 13, 1999, as The Impeachment Spectacle: What To Tell the Children
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