September 30, 1998

White House Scandal Has Families Talking

Teens Losing Respect For Politicians

Introduction and Summary

The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal has American parents talking with their children about everything from whether the President lied or should be punished, to broader discussions about values and sex. Parents of younger children wait for their kids to start these conversations, while parents of teenagers are as likely to bring up the subject themselves as are their teens.

Many parents, particularly those of teenagers, say that the scandal is leading to more family discussions of politics in general. But significant percentages of these same parents say that the scandal is leading to a loss of respect for politicians among their children. Further, while few see the scandal harming their children’s moral development, many parents of younger children worry that it will tarnish their kids’ views of government.

Most older children and teenagers are also talking amongst themselves about Clinton and Lewinsky. But schools and churches are reported to be relatively quiet on the subject. Few elementary or middle school parents say that the controversy has been discussed by teachers or at religious school or services. Only half say their high school age children have talked about it with teachers, and just one-in-four say it was discussed in Sunday school.

The aspect of the story of most interest to children what will ultimately happen to President Clinton. Teenagers are more often reported to be amused by the allegations against Clinton than disturbed by them. Many parents of younger children say that their 8-to-10-year-olds are confused by the controversy.

Even though many parents have talked about the subject with their children, the news media — especially TV — is providing young people with most of their information about the scandal. Nearly 40% of parents of younger children say they have been more careful about what their children are watching on the news since the release of the Starr report. As many as 21% of teenagers read at least part of the Starr report and even more watched the videotape of Clinton’s grand jury testimony, according to their parents.

As with opinion about the scandal itself, partisanship colors even parenting on the subject. Children of Republicans talk more about the Clinton scandal to family and friends and are said to be suffering more disillusionment with politics than the average child, while the exact opposite is said to be true of children from Democratic families.

These are among the results of a nationwide survey of 597 parents who have one or more children between the ages of 8 and 17. Conducted September 19-23, 1998, the survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Scandal Draws in Kids

The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal is capturing the attention of American children, especially teenagers. Parents of high school age children have discussed the controversy with their kids at least as much as they have talked about the Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa home run race and more than a host of other news topics ranging from terrorist attacks to the cloning of sheep. Only schoolyard shootings have generated more discussion between teens and parents. The survey results suggest that there is less discussion of the scandal between parents and younger children because many parents wait for their youngsters to bring up the subject, rather than initiate a discussion themselves.

Among parents with 14-to-17-year-olds, 29% say they have discussed the scandal a lot with their teens, compared to 13% of parents with 11-to-13-year-olds and only 6% of parents with 8-to-10-year-olds. Although parents of teens spend more time talking about most news stories with their kids than do parents of younger children, the gap is greatest for this controversy.

The scandal is spurring some parents — particularly those of high school students — to spend more time talking about politics with their children than they did before. Fully 43% of parents of children over age 13 say they have discussed politics with their teens more since the news first broke; 33% of parents with children between ages 11 and 13 agree, along with 22% of parents with younger children (ages 8 through 10).

Teenagers are also reported to be more interested in the scandal than are younger children. Almost half of parents of teens describe their children as at least fairly interested in the scandal. In contrast, 57% of parents of 8-to-10-year-olds and one-third of parents of 11-to-13-year-olds say their children are not at all interested in the controversy.

Among parents of young children, 70% say that their conversations about the scandal are initiated by their children. This compares with only 45% of parents of teenagers. With teens, parents are just as likely to bring up the topic themselves as to wait for a question (47% to 45%).

Clinton detractors talk more about the scandal with their children than do Clinton supporters. A quarter of those who disapprove of the job Clinton is doing (24%) discuss the scandal a lot with their kids, compared to 12% of those who approve of Clinton’s job performance. Evangelical Christians also discuss the scandal at higher than average rates.

Overall, 41% of parents say they have spent a lot of time talking to their kids about school shootings. Nearly one-third (30%) have talked a lot about the McGwire-Sosa home run race.

Parents and kids have talked about terrorist attacks against Americans almost as often as they have talked about the Clinton scandal. Half have talked about terrorism a lot (14%) or some (37%). Parents have spent relatively less time talking about cloning, local campaigns and elections, and the problems in Russia.

Kids also talk about the Clinton scandal with their friends and classmates, according to their parents. Nearly half of parents say their kids have talked about the allegations against Clinton with their friends and classmates. Only 17% say their kids have not discussed the scandal and 36% are not sure. Again, older children are discussing the scandal at much higher rates than are younger kids. Fully 65% of parents with teenagers say their teens have talked about the issue with friends. This compares with 29% of parents with kids between ages 8 and 10.

Just as Republican parents are more likely to talk about the scandal with their children, they report that their youngsters are among the most likely to be talking about it with friends and classmates.

The scandal is being addressed by some teachers, especially at the high school level. Half of parents with 14-to-17-year-olds say the subject has been discussed by teachers. Far fewer parents of middle school and elementary school students are aware of the topic being addressed by teachers — only 28% and 15%, respectively say their children’s teachers have discussed it.

One-in-four high school age children have discussed the scandal at Sunday school or religious services, according to their parents. Fewer than one-in-five children under age 14 have heard about it at church. The children of Evangelical Christians are much more likely than others to have discussed the matter at church.

TV the Main Source for Kids

Parents say children of all ages are getting most of their information about the scandal from television news, although few children actually watched the live broadcast of Clinton’s nationally-televised address or his videotaped grand jury testimony. More than half of parents say television news is the primary source of their children’s information about the scandal, followed by discussions with parents and friends. Fewer than 10% of children get most of their information about the scandal from newspapers or the Internet, according to parents.

Although more than half of parents say the scandal has had no effect on the amount of television news their children see, parents of youngsters ages 8 to 10 express more concern than parents of teenagers (38% vs. 13%, respectively say they are being more careful). Similarly, while more than half of children age 11 and older have access to the Internet, few parents say they are more careful about allowing their kids to go online since release of the Starr report.

Most parents say their children have not seen any of the more graphic presentations of the scandal in recent weeks. Just 30% of parents of teens say their children saw part of Clinton’s videotaped testimony, while only 21% say their kids had read part of the Starr report or saw Clinton’s nationally-televised address. Among younger children, even fewer saw either of these broadcasts or read any of the Starr report.

Talk Is About Morals, Values

When the scandal comes up in conversation between parents and children, most families talk about topics like morals and values, parents’ views about Clinton, and whether or not Clinton lied. Across all age groups, at least half of parents have used the scandal to talk to their children about morals and values in general, and nearly as many have discussed their own views of Clinton and whether Clinton lied.

Many parents of teenagers have also talked about other aspects of the scandal, including whether Clinton should be punished and whether he should be forgiven, although these topics come up much less frequently with younger children. Indeed, 46% of parents with children between ages 8 and 10 say they have not discussed the Clinton scandal at all with their youngsters.

Not surprisingly, a child’s age is a major factor in whether or not the sexual aspects of the scandal have come up in conversation. Fully 58% of parents have talked with teenage children about whether Clinton had sex with Monica Lewinsky, compared to 40% of parents with children between ages 11 and 13 and just 17% of parents with children between ages 8 and 10. Across all age groups, fewer than one-third of parents have discussed the impeachment process with their children.

Parents who don’t like Clinton tend to discuss the president’s troubles with their children more than do parents who are Clinton supporters. Three-quarters of parents who disapprove of Clinton (74%) have talked to their children about whether or not Clinton lied, compared to just 47% of parents who approve of the way Clinton is handling his job. Similarly, 62% of parents who disapprove of the president have discussed Clinton’s apology with their children, compared to 33% of those who approve of Clinton.

The different types of scandal-related topics that have been discussed do not vary substantially between mothers with sons and mothers with daughters. Among fathers, however, some topics came up more frequently with daughters than with sons. Fully 60% of fathers say they have discussed their own views about Clinton with their daughters, for example, compared to 48% of fathers who have discussed their views of Clinton with their sons. Similarly, 40% of fathers have talked to their daughters about whether Clinton and Lewinsky had sex, compared to 31% of fathers who have discussed the topic with their sons.

How Will It End?

At least half of parents say their children are interested in how things will end up for Clinton. This is true across all age groups — 50% of parents with youngsters between ages 8 and 10, 60% among those with children 11 to 13, and 69% among parents of teenagers.

Younger children are most likely to be confused by the scandal story: 44% of parents of children between ages 8 and 10 say their kids are confused, compared to 36% of parents of children between 11 and 13, and just 24% of parents of teenagers. One-third of parents say their teenage children are amused by the scandal.

At the same time, most parents say they are more upset than their children by the scandal, while roughly one-third of parents say neither they nor their children are very upset by the allegations against President Clinton.

Consequences for Kids

Parents see the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal manifesting itself in different ways for different age children. Parents of high school students are more likely to express concern that the scandal has caused their child to lose respect for politicians, while parents of elementary and middle school kids are more likely to see the controversy as harmful to their children’s attitudes about politics and government more broadly.

Half of parents with a teenager (51%) say the scandal has made their child less respectful of politicians. Overall, Republican parents express more concern about this than do Democratic parents (53% vs. 33%, respectively). Most parents say they had more respect for the president when they were young than their children do now. Fully 60% of parents of older children and over half of parents of children between the ages of 8 and 13 say this is so.

About half of all parents say that learning about the issue will not affect their children’s attitude toward politics and government. The remainder are split on the nature of the lesson. Some 30% of parents of children ages 8-10 think the scandal will harm their children’s interest in politics, while a similar percentage of parents of teens believe it may help.

Not surprisingly, Republicans are more concerned about the long-term implications of the scandal for the next generation of adults than are Democrats. Republicans think the issue will be more influential on their children’s interest in politics than Democrats do. Moreover, Republicans think the scandal will be more detrimental to their children’s views of government than do Democrats (44% vs. 27%, respectively).

Overall, parents say that the impact of the scandal on their children is more political than moral. Over 60% of parents of children under the age of 14 and 70% of parents of older children say that learning about this issue will not make much of a difference in their children’s moral development.

Three-quarters of all parents believe that the best lesson for their children would be for Congress to take some action against President Clinton, but they are split as to what that action should be: 37% favor impeachment; 39% favor a formal reprimand or censure. There are clear partisan differences among parents’ views concerning which measure would serve as the better lesson: 60% of Republicans prefer impeachment; 49% of Democrats favor censure.