Talking to Kids About Jamie Lynn

When I saw the New York Post on my breakfast table this morning, I practically threw my body on top of it. There, across from my sleepy seven-year-old daughter, was a smiling picture of her favorite TV actress, Jamie Lynn Spears, star of "Zoey 101." On the show, Jamie Lynn is a spunky student at the beautiful Pacific Coast Academy, a boarding school where drugs don't exist and kids do their homework without ever being asked. In real life, Jamie Lynn is 16 years old and three months pregnant.

How am I supposed to explain that to my daughter? You'd think I would have figured out how to talk to my kid about bad celebrity behavior when Jamie Lynn's big sister Britney was partying sans underwear and shaving her head in public. Or when nude photos of "High School Musical" star Vanessa Hudgens popped up online. But this morning I choked. She's not going to find out about this from me, I thought.

Not that she won't find out about Jamie Lynn's big news on her own. I know that in our media-soaked culture even little kids are aware of celebrity antics. One seven-year-old girl in New Jersey heard it on the radio, according to her father. "That's Britney Spears' sister," she said with authority. "She's the one that cut her hair off." Another of my daughter's peers in L.A. picked up the news during a Today show segment on how to talk to your kids about Spears' pregnancy, her mom says. The girl's matter-of-fact response: "Well now they're going to have to cancel the show or she'll have to be on the show fat."

Nickelodeon hasn't said what's to become of the show, though I'll no longer think of it in quite the same way. Nick issued a statement saying it respected "Jamie Lynn's decision to take responsibility in this sensitive and personal situation." The show is scheduled to conclude its third season on Jan. 4 and the fourth season has already been completed, according to an Associated Press report. Spears' own mom seemed to take the news pretty well. "She was very upset because it wasn't what she expected at all," Jamie Lynn told OK! Magazine. "A week after, she had time to cope with it and became very supportive." (She has, however, reportedly postponed plans to publish a parenting guide.)

Personally, I'm a little freaked out. I know that parenting experts say this kind of event can be a teaching moment, a perfect chance to find out how your kid thinks about the world and to teach them about your own values. "This is your opportunity, because it's in their faces, so don't let it go," advises Dr. Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City. With older kids, it's an opportunity to talk about safe sex or the consequences of reckless behavior. With a younger child, it's best to simply ask them what they think about the situation. "You don't need to give a seven-year-old the full conversation about the birds and bees," he adds.

Thank God. It's not that I believe my daughter will grow up thinking, "Jamie Lynn Spears got pregnant at 16, so I will, too." I have faith that children learn values at home, and that my years of brainwashing will have far more effect on her than one knocked-up TV starlet. Nor is it that I'm squeamish about sex. I know that teenagers have sex and I know that my own child will be probably have sex years before I'll think she's ready.

It's the pregnancy part that makes me crazy. As a good feminist, I believe that the opportunities in front of my bright, innocent daughter are limitless. She is growing up in a world where girls have ready access to organized sports, safe contraception and Ivy League colleges. Where more than half of all bachelor's degrees awarded go to women and where a woman is a credible candidate for U.S. president.

The idea that my child could throw all that away by becoming a mother at 16 makes my blood run cold. Maybe that's because when I was growing up in Minnesota one of my greatest fears was ending up pregnant in snow-mobile boots in some run-down house in Osseo, Minn. with cars up on blocks in my drive way. One false step, I remember thinking, and that's going to be my life: Cold, hard and small. What if when I was telling my daughter that she could be anything, she was hearing that she could do anything she wanted when she was only 16. What if my daughter decides that the most outrageous teenage rebellion for a private-school girl in hipster Brooklyn is to become a teenage mother. That would kill me.

But then it really isn't about me, is it? I am projecting my own fears onto my child, whose circumstances and concerns are far different from mine. It's something well-meaning parents often do, according to Dr. Wendy Mogel, a psychologist in L.A. and author of "Blessing of a Skinned Knee." We do it out of love, she assures me. Still, she suggests it might not be the best strategy. We don't want to pass our fears onto our children. The challenges my daughter faces may have more to do with the pressure to be skinny and popular and athletic and take AP physics courses and get into a great college. "Of course you don't want your daughter to get pregnant, but it's ok for her to have a few secrets and lies--and to have a little fun," Dr. Mogel says. "I worry about the girls that are too good."

So I vow not to bring the subject up with my daughter, and if she brings it up with me I will try to find out what she thinks about it. I will try not to be harsh or judgmental about Ms. Spears, because I want my daughter to feel like she can talk to me about anything. I will use the opportunity to discuss with her the difference between an actor, a real person, and the roles they play. I will talk to her about what happens when you're so famous. I will tell her that it's really hard for parents to watch over celebrity kids. That when kids are really famous they're often allowed to act like someone much older than they are and it becomes very hard for their parents to protect them. And I won't bring up Osseo, Minnesota. Or at least I'll try not to.