Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Censorship? Or Parenting?

That’s the classic debate that comes up when Ron mentions parents who read the books they don’t want their children to read. I’m that kind of parent. I don’t consider it censorship, since I’m not campaigning for decisions in my home to become mandated policy in other homes. But plenty of folks have told me they are surprised that an author would be a “censor” for her own children.

So is it censorship or parenting when I don’t allow my son to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid until he’s in 5th grade? I first said no when we saw it at the school bookfair last fall. Said no again after each report of the many other 7-year-olds in his class who were reading it. Said no for a final time when sending teary boy back to the school library with a book that he’d checked out even though I’d already said no. I didn’t say “never.” But to a 7-year-old “in a few years” might as well be “never.”

We did read a few chapters together. When I asked why Ethan thought them funny, he pointed to the most surface level of slapstick. Everything else sailed over his head. Guess I could let him read the series now…then it’d be old hat by the time he’s mature enough to understand why some call the main character a “bad role model.” Would be a shame, though, for him to miss out on the true heart and humor of the books. A double shame really, because what other books wouldn’t we have time for that he’s in the sweet spot for now?

I “censored” Beverly Cleary in the same way. We held off on reading the Ramona books because my son doted on his baby sister and there was no need to plant the seed that little sisters can be annoying. Now that he’s 8 and she’s 4, they’ve reached that place in their own good time—and the Ramona books are perfect! I expect that’s what will happen with the Wimpy Kid series in a few years. And by then, there will be a whole new set of books for which I’m saying “no” or “not right now.”


  1. I'm with you, Cheryl. Nicholas has read books far, far beyond his level - usually accidentally (or when he swipes *my* books). Wringer was too scary for him, and I had to raid his bookshelf to get Persepolis II back (sorry, he has to be at least, say, 11, for drugs and sex).

    But other times I'm surprised. He understood most of the themes in American Born Chinese and has read the Wimpy Kid books enough times to wear the covers off. But would either have made it into his reading cove at age 7? Not unless they got there without my knowing.

    It's part of my job as Mom to see that his mind is fed, as well as his tummy. You wouldn't give a newborn chips and salsa, and you wouldn't give a 6yr old Octavian Nothing.

  2. Rebecca, the graphic novels seem particularly tricky on this front. Ethan was looking for a follow-up to Captain Underpants when we had the Wimpy Kid debate. If he'd seen Perspeolis, it would have caught his eye too. Plus, "middle grade" covers such a wide range of development. We've read some early Harry Potter, some of the Grimm Sisters series, and others with middle-school-age characters that are more action/suspense based. Those are a hit!

  3. I admire that y'all talk with your kiddos about their reading selections. Not many parents do. Just curious about the Ramona books, Cheryl... Don't you think a kid already knows or would soon discover that his/her kid sister might be annoying? I just don't buy that Cleary's [or another writer's books] would "plant a seed." Seems a kid knows the seed's alive and well, compliments of the real life sister. Just as a kid knows that the household broom isn't a Nimbus 2000.

    I'm not a parent. And there are SO many issues here. Not sure I think about censorship and parenting as an "either/or" dichotomy, though.

  4. Melissa, books and all media absolutely plant seeds for attitudes, ideas and behavior. Stories are a big part of where children learn expectations for how the world works.

    Sure, sibling rivalry is a natural emotion, but it plays out differently in different families. Our family lasted four years before big brother started calling his little sister "annoying," and they engaged in frequent sibling bickering. I'm certain we'd have gotten to this point sooner if we'd read stories focused on sibling rivalry. Now both children have their own set life experiences to make those stories meaningful.

    For an extreme example of stories stimulating expectations, ideas and behavior, look at the Disney Princess Brand over the last decade. Here's a set of stories that started out in movie form, but are now translated into books, sticker books, dolls, clothes, home decor, everything you can think of. Is it really true that all, or even most, little girls are inherently interested in "princesses" as an all-consuming passion? No. Fairy tales have resonated with people for centuries. But the current hype of specifically all-Disney-Princess-all-the-time is manufactured by marketing—-to children, to parents, to grandparents. In a creative twist on marketing, Disney even donates unsold books, clothes, and toys to schools and day care centers.

    Imagine how the games little girls play would be different if we could give schools and day cares away thousands of copies of Phyllis Root’s Paula Bunyan, with accompanying action figures. That would be awesome!

  5. Now giving away Phyllis Root's books would be awesome!

    I don't contest that stories don't influence, stimulate ideas, etc in children. We all know they do. But I DO contend that the child, as a denizen of the world, already senses, knows, can articulate, or maybe not quite yet, the issues that the books "plant." The seed was planted long before any book entered the picture. So, maybe, just maybe, the book helped fertilize it.

    How about the school yard? The school bus? Hanging out with other kids? Encountering the school bully? Watching movies? Surfing the Net [I know there are parental controls for the last two]. All I'm saying is, if an adult [parent, teacher, whoever], censors--restricts access--though it's a choice, I have to wonder how one might also censor the child's access to that mean bully. Or the back of the school bus? Or the mean girls? Kids are exposed to far worse without ever having opened a book. So, how then does an adult censor all the other "seed planting" folks and exposures in a child's life?

    I'm not a parent. Maybe that's a good thing. But I just think that Diary of Wimpy Kid is a bit tamer than what goes on in the back of a school bus [IMHO].

  6. See? I knew this parent/censoring thing would spark debate!

    The core issue here is the age and development of the child reader. When my son was almost three, he pulled a library book off the shelf that turned out to be about little pigs who made a game out of sneaking out of bed at night. We read it cursorily and then "couldn't find" it until time to return it to the library. If Ethan had been popping out of bed at that time, then reading that book the usual dozen or so times might have been just right for us. Or if he had been, say 4, and already had bedtime habits firmly established, then the book would have been funny. But 2-year-olds have, shall we say "limited" capacity for abstract thinking and logical discussion. Most parents don't want to borrow trouble when it comes to modeling appropriate bedtime habits for toddlers.

    The instincts you're describing develop as children grow, but not all in one fell swoop.

  7. You sure did! HA!

    I guess I don't buy into the causal connection between a particular book causing or planting a seed that will then cause a particular behavior. How does one put a finger on that? A correlation? Sure. Okay. But a causal connection? Nah. Sounds like the Columbine argument--if the kids hadn't played those video games, then...

    I totally understand that a parent doesn't want to "borrow trouble." And, to be clear, I support a parent's choice.

    My mom once told me that when she arrived home from the hospital with the sister who is fourteen months my younger, I hit my sister. I sensed that new bundle would interrupt some part of my life. I didn't like her arrival. I was jealous. So, I acted out. As you say, "two year-olds have limited capacity...for logical discussion." However, I take issue with a child's "limited" capacity for abstract thinking. Just because I didn't know the word "jealousy" doesn't mean I didn't know what it meant. As a person who grew up with four other siblings, I needed books like Cleary's--not to tell me my siblings were pesty--but to show me that other kids dealt with pesty siblings, too. I wasn't alone.

  8. I think that, no matter how much you know about child development, no matter how well you know your own child, you can never predict how an individual book will affect an individual reader. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE scares the crap out of some preschoolers; others think it's hilarious. And, actually, some of my most cherished memories are of books that did the former. My grandmother used to read me a really creepy picture book version of Swan Lake when I was around three. Did it give me nightmares? Sure, but I survived. And now those illustrations are burned into my brain (Hi, Siegfried! Hi, Odette!), and I love them. So a book induces a few shivers or prompts a kid to make "mischief of one kind and another." Is that necessarily a bad thing?

  9. Nope. And daycare, playgroup, watching Barney, every parent, sibling, friend, enemy, frienemy will induce similar shivers. Ces't la vie. The kids are all right.

  10. This just reinforces my thinking that "appropriate" all depends on the child, the family, the book, the timing, etc. The Ramona books are perfect for our family too--now. But we didn't need them when 4-year-old Ethan wanted the new baby to sleep in his room.

    And Chris, I totally agree that reactions to stories can be unpredictable. Some of Ethan's friends were loving Goosebumps a while back, but the books freaked him out. I would say that Ethan tried those books too early *for him*, purely based on his reaction. Now he's in the sweet spot for those books, but won't touch them with a ten foot pole. Maybe he's a kid who just doesn't like spooky stories. Or maybe he's a kid who would have loved that series if he'd met it at the right time. No way to know for sure.

  11. The only book that has ever freaked out my older daughter is Brian Wildsmith's THE EASTER STORY. When you think about it, a guy getting whipped and having nails pounded through his body is pretty inappropriate subject matter for a 4 yr-old. But I left the book on the shelf. My philosophy is, I guess, that it's up to my daughters to decide if a certain book is right for them. If it's not, they have a simple way of letting me know: they close the cover.

  12. Like Chris, I loved the scare-the-sh@t-out-of-me books, and now my oldest likes the same. In this case, I don't worry.

    But when he reads a dozen Simpson books of cartoons and starts talking about "Dads" being fat, drunks, etc. (which spills down to younger siblings) I put a quick end to Simpsons in the house. And have a lot of conversations.

    I'm not sure my kids would close the cover, whether they're ready for a book or not. With Wringer, Nicholas closed it, but with the Figure Drawing book he pulled from my shelf, the one with the 1970s nude models? That one he tried to sneak into his backpack to take to school.

  13. Here's a link where teens weigh in on the censorship issue--particularly the "darkness in YA" debate:

    Great debate, y'all!

  14. Rebecca, I sure hope my girls are sneaking nudie books into their backpacks--like I want to have to explain all that stuff myself. Let books do it!

    No, really, I think the sneakiness is a sign that, in a sense, your son IS ready for that book. He's curious, he's ready to break away from you and do something that feels risky and exciting. I remember hiding such books from my parents as a kid. It was exhilarating.