Gov. Sanford of South Carolina has four sons. Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, and Jim McGreevey have daughters, and John Edwards has children of both genders.
I thought of these sons and daughters recently when I read Gail Collins' New York Times column on Gov. Sanford, where she mused that all of these fathers took "a swan dive off the adultery cliff."
The media have detailed every aspect of this latest political sex scandal, and I'm sure many young people have questions in the wake of it.
Governor Sanford's liaison provides parents with a great opportunity to talk about important sexual and relationship issues with their children. Sexuality educators have long called these types of high-profile media events "teachable moments," since they give us a great way to introduce the often difficult subject of talking about sex with our youth.Parents can easily become squeamish and uncomfortable talking about sex honestly with their kids, unless they already have a good record of doing so.
Think of a "teachable moment" as the brass ring on a merry-go-round. Clutch it, clear your throat, and open the conversation with something as simple as, "Have the kids at school been talking about the governor of South Carolina's sexual affair?"
It would be easy to sidestep the sexual aspects of the story and focus on Governor Sanford's failure to do his duty to the people of South Carolina when he disappeared for days. But talking about the sexual side of the disappearance is necessary, because it's what drove him to neglect his responsibilities.
Political sex scandals like this one give us a world-class moment to talk in particular about family values with our children. Every family has its own set of values about sexuality and sexual behavior. But there is a core set of values that we can possibly agree on, and the premier value in that set is sexual fidelity. We can discuss with our children our beliefs about sexual fidelity as well as marriage, love, and mutual responsibility.
Older teens really thirst to know about their parents' feelings and values on relationship issues, since they themselves are just beginning to wrestle with them. So they welcome open, honest discussion with their parents about issues like: why people cheat, why a marriage sometimes isn't enough, why kids get hurt by their parents' affairs, and how to trust and cope when faced with disloyalty.
I have to admit that, in retrospect, my husband and I never had as many conversations with our three children, now grown, about sex as I wish we had had. (I did not get involved in sexuality education until they were adults and did not see the importance of talking to them about sexual health topics when they were younger.) I missed many chances to grab a teachable moment like Gov. Sanford's affair.
I have urged my children to talk to their children about the Sanford affair. Among my five grandchildren, I have only one who is a teenager, and he is already saturated by the TV coverage. I asked him how he thought Sanford's sons might be feeling about their father's sexual misbehavior.
"Embarrassed, very embarrassed," he said.
I am hoping his parents will take up the conversation with him where I left off-and that all parents will grab the brass ring of teachable moments and talk honestly with their kids about sex.