Censorship & parenting

I had two recent parenting experiences related to book censorship that I thought might be of interest to readers who liked (or liked to hate) my previous posts on creating house rules for my kid’s internet use and/or book rating systems.

1) Those adults don’t know what they’re talking about

I’m on the ALA OIF‘s listserv that sends out info on book/materials challenges all over the United States and occasionally beyond. (For non-librarians, a “challenge” is what we call it when someone wants a library to remove something from the collection, or move it from one section to another to try to hide/censor it.) The other night I followed a link on the list to this video clip about a mom in TX who just won an appeal to get “The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby” removed from her kid’s school library because the book contains the language “poo poo head” in it. This women’s son had previously been suspended for school due to an incident in which he called another child a “poo poo head.”

I showed the clip to my 8yo, because I knew he has and likes that book. I asked him what he thought, and he immediately said, “That’s silly. They don’t even say ‘poo poo head’ in that book.” He paused, thought for a moment and verified, “Nope, they never do.” He went and got the book from his bookshelf to show me. I skimmed through the whole thing, twice, and darned if he isn’t right! Oh, it’s chock full of potty humour: they say “poo poo” and “Deputy Doo-Doo” and “poopy” all over the place, but nowhere in the book does the phrase in question – “poo poo head” – actually appear.

Unless there’s some different Texas edition of the book, all these adults were arguing over a book they obviously hadn’t even read very closely, if at all. None of the online commentors on the news story seemed to catch this point eitherthat this entire book challenge is basically built on the premise that this book retroactively incited a child to say a phrase that doesn’t even appear in the book.

Following up on the concept, though, I asked my kid whether he thought a school library should have any books in which people do or say things they’re not allowed to do or say in school. He looked at me like I’d gone off the deep end, and asked if they were also making sure that Harry Potter and the Bible weren’t in the library too, because people fight in Harry Potter and they do a whole lot of bad things in the Bible!

2) Censorship vs Parenting

The very next day, I ended up having a conversation with a bunch of other moms about whether and how we guide our children away from books we think are too mature for them. One mom, with a young daughter who is an exceptionally voracious reader and capable of decoding material aimed at an adult audience, was having mixed feelings about having taken a book (one of the unquestionably-adult Southern Vampire Series) away from her daughter. On one hand she felt like it was unquestionably the right thing to do – this first grader was in no way ready for such mature themes – but on the other hand she felt a little bit like a censor. I’ve heard other parents express such mixed feelings before.

Here’s my take:

As someone who’s taken classes on the topic, read widely about it and even published about censorship, my take is that there’s censorship and then there’s parenting. People have all different definitions of censorship, but only very extreme views contest a parent’s right/responsibility to help their young (e.g. pre-adolescent) child select age-appropriate reading materials. (Unless your opinion of age-appropriate varies hugely from the norms around you.)

Lester Asheim has a statement to the effect that the goal of censorship is thought control. There’s trying to control what your kid thinks. And then there’s trying to help temporarily protect her from stuff she doesn’t have the emotional maturity to process at this time in her young life. This type of parental responsibility is the very reason we can insist that institutions such as libraries take stances *against* censorship – because it’s not *their* job to decide what your kid reads; it’s your job. It’s the library’s job to provide as wide a range as possible of materials from which you may make your selection.

I have no problem telling a kid of mine (or that I’m, say, babysitting) that a certain book they happen upon is a grown-up book and not for them right now. I would not do this as a library worker, however.While I would only recommend books that were clearly age-appropriate to a kid who was looking for something to read, I wouldn’t tell a child that a particular book wasn’t for them. That’s the parent’s job, not the librarian’s job.

Back to my parenting role, if there was a specific book my kid *really* wanted to read, and I was on the fence about in terms of appropriateness, I’d read it with him and discuss. A few times when my own son was considering a library book that was possibly disturbing, I’ve told him, “Hey, I don’t think you’ll like this book. It’s got some violence I think you’ll find upsetting.” Thanks to being a librarian and knowing other librarians to ask for recommendations, I can usually suggest a good substitute in lieu of the particular book, and so far my kid’s never decided he really wants to read any of the books I have concerns about. I find myself doing this less and less as he gets older, more socially adept and better at handling with scary and sad things.

I’ll never forget my grade 3 teacher telling me I couldn’t take a book she had (fairly bizarrely, in retrospect) deemed a “boy book” out of our school library. My mother came to bat for me and made it clear that she was the person to allow or not allow me to read a given (age-appropriate) book, and that my teacher should no longer try to control me or my thinking/reading like that. It was awesome. Not the book – I mean, it was good, from what I can remember – but the freedom from a teacher arbitrarily deciding what books I could or couldn’t read. Go mom.

In sum, there’s censorship and there’s parenting.

Censorship is deciding that no kid in the school should be allowed to read a book in which the villains use potty humour because it might give the impression that the school condones calling people bathroom names.

Parenting is helping your children find developmentally appropriate media, and working through the hard parts with them when they arise.

-Greyson

ps – Spellcheck doesn’t like “poopy” “poo poo” or “censor.” 

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5 Comments

Filed under censorship, Intellectual freedom, public libraries, school libraries, youth

5 responses to “Censorship & parenting

  1. Tracy

    This is very well articulated, and I completely agree with your distinctions between censorship and parenting. However, there is a point here that is being obscured by the perfectly valid differentiation between the two. When I was in high school, my mom found out I was reading one of those R.L. Stine horror novels, and she threw a fit and threw it away. The librarian threw a fit that she decided to physically censor the library. She paid for the book, they probably replaced it, and it was over. However, the truth was, I read all kinds of books like that, and my mom had no idea because it was at school. Now, my mom was pretty conservative and very controlling, and I was in high school, so I don’t really agree with her parenting choice at that point in my life, but that is beside the point. The point is that I don’t think there is perfect separation between the two, but instead, the boundaries are fuzzy. How can you ‘parent’ a kid when they have access to things you aren’t able to filter? And how do you handle it when the school decides differently from you what books are appropriate? Then, completely missing from this discussion is the fact that many people do try to control their children’s thinking. Values, religion, philosophy, politics, hobbies, habits, fashion, and every other area of culture and tradition involve passing on what is important, what you see as right and wrong. Some parents value independent thought (individualistic cultures), and others do not (collectivist cultures). In the end, I believe that censorship and parenting intersect in practice, if not in philosophy.

    • greyson

      Thanks for your comment, Tracy.

      First off, while I don’t agree with her that a high-school student shouldn’t be allowed to read R.L. Stine books, your mom was within her parental rights to disallow you to do so. Of course, destroying other people’s property (in this case the library’s) is pretty uncool, but she paid for it so they presumably got a brand shiny new copy to replace the used copy she disposed of.

      While I personally think it’s “wrong” (according to my values) to attempt to control my child’s media consumption to that point, in the US & Canada the parent (and really only the parent, unless they grant someone else rights in loco parentis) has the right to do so. Censorship and parenting can certainly coexist, and both have many, many definitions, so you are correct to point out that it’s a bit of a false dichotomy. However, I would maintain that involved parenting, including guiding children to appropriate reading materials, does not necessarily (or even typically) equal censorship.

      In a previous post’s comments, I responded to a parent who was upset at a book her 14-year-old daughter had brought home from school. I think that response might interest you, given your experience with your own mother.

      Among other things, I wrote that:
      “…there are cultural norms, which may or may not always coincide with your personal or cultural values. As our kids grow up, their spheres of experience get larger and larger: from the home & family, to the home + neighbourhood, to home + school and social circle, to really the entire world. At some point in this progression we lose control over what our child comes in contact with….Also at some point in this progression, our kids experience things we would rather protect them from. What do we do then? It’s a genuinely tough question. I would argue that those of us who are able to be by our children’s side during these early life challenges, and experience them in literature rather than in person, are the lucky ones….Of course, if one disagrees with a very large or significant portion of the public curriculum, then perhaps the appropriate course for that family is private or home education.”

      (For the whole thing, see http://sjlibrarian.wordpress.com/2007/12/11/on-book-ratings-and-empathy/)

  2. It’s kindof beside the point, really, but the fact that the exact phrase “poo poo head” doesn’t occur in the text seems a bit academic. Obviously, a child can read a book, pick up new vocabulary, or surmise that pre-existing vocabulary (that they’ve previously been guided away from) is in fact appropriate, and start adapting the language they’ve picked up through reading in their own speech.

    This is, in fact, a lot of what we hope for children to get out of reading. It’s not the entire point of reading, but it’s a big part of it.

    That said, the parent who wanted the book removed from the library is still wrong for imposing their will on the library’s entire patronage. And wrong for wanting the library to do the parent’s job. I’m sure the parent’s argument for censorship is that they can’t watch their child 24/7, so they need a nanny state to do it for them. In reality, a lot of a child’s development is a result of what they do when they’re on their own, and not under the direct supervision of their parents or other authorities. Mischief and getting in trouble is an important part of being a kid. Children shouldn’t be treated like robots, to be programmed to obey their masters’ wishes. And, like the comedian Louis C.K. said, you don’t have to be smart to laugh at farts, but you have to be stupid not to.

  3. Emily Duncan

    Thank you for this post! I am a graduate student in the UMD MLS iSchool, and I have to tell you, this post made me feel relieved that their are people like you in this world that are sensible and sensitive at the same time. I know I’m a couple years late, but our teacher shared this in our class, and I wanted to say, it gave me a second wind.

  4. Emily Duncan

    *There (sorry)

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