7 December, 2022

Gimbling in the Wabe – On Children and Censorship

Okay, so…. I know my memory isn’t what it should be.  But I can’t remember ever – not once – being told that I couldn’t read a particular book.  That it wasn’t appropriate, or had unsuitable content.  Not from a teacher, a parent, a librarian.  Not when I was young, certainly not when I got older.

I don’t remember ever telling that to my kids, either, or them being told that in school.  The closest I ever came to child reading scarycensoring something of theirs wasn’t even literary; when he was 10 years old, my son wanted to buy rap artist Eminem’s album, The Slim Shady LP.  I was worried, because I knew the lyrics on the album were misogynistic and violent.  But I also trusted my son.  I told him he could buy the CD, but that we would listen to it together, first.

He was okay with that.  Maybe even a little bit relieved.  When we listened to it the first time, up in his room, we talked about why Slim was so mad, and why Eminem might have created a persona that was so mad, and about times when he felt mad and about his own impulses when he was angry.  We didn’t change the world and we didn’t even really unearth any groundbreaking revelations about each other, but we did connect.  And I felt that I helped him understand some of the bigger issues of life, even as he reinforced in me that admiration of something does not mean acceptance of its dogma.  He also reinforced just how wonderful a human being he was, and is.

Listen, we all want to protect our children.  It’s human nature, and as a mom, I know that there are very few things in my life that I’ve felt so strongly, than a desperate desire to ensure my kids’ lives are happy, to the best of my ability.

But I also realize that sometimes the best way to protect them is to expose them to the vagaries of the world.

It’s been that way since they were babies.  I believe that’s true of all babies.  If a parent tiptoes around a newborn at naptime, turning off the phones, disallowing doorbells, closing windows, and speaking only in the softest of whispers, then there’s a good chance that child will be unable to sleep soundly later in life, when variables cannot be successfully managed.  Or if a youngster is raised in a sterile environment, no matter how well meaning the effort, then there is a good chance that child will be vulnerable to common, everyday pathogens once he leaves the bubble of an antiseptic home environment.

These are merely a few obvious examples of how we can actually damage our children, even as we attempt to protect them.

It’s the same way with censoring what they read.

Yes, absolutely, it’s good to know what your children are reading, and yes, there are some limits to what they should be allowed to read at a certain age.  As much as I absolutely adore the works of Jacqueline Carey, for example, I would not suggest to a ten year old girl, no matter how advanced, that she should read Kushiel’s Dart.  The eroticism and alternate sensualities of that book would not be appropriate for one so young, in that she should (hopefully) not have had experience in which to put Phèdre nó Delaunay’s life into context.  (And from what I’ve read of Ms. Carey’s interactions with her readers, she would agree with me on that point.)

But here’s the thing:  the response to a ten year old girl who asks to read Kushiel’s Dart shouldn’t be “no”.  It should be “not yet”.

Alternately, just because something goes counter to an adult’s sensitivity does not mean that a child should be “shielded” in accordance with that sensitivity.  It’s better to expose them to a parent’s outlook openly from an early age, rather than dictate and then simply expect them to fall into line later when they are more apt to question or push back.  If there already has been a healthy exchange of ideas, then there will be more willingness to accept the validity of someone else’s viewpoint, even if that viewpoint is not or cannot be acceptable to one’s own sensibilities.  The dialog becomes as important as the stance.

Here’s a simple example.  I really do not like Shel Silverstein’s classic children’s picture book, The Giving Tree.  While I can intellectually understand and even champion the power of unconditional, selfless love, to me the book is a tale of exploitation.  But when my children received a copy of the book as a gift, I didn’t banish it from the home nor did I refuse to read it.  Instead, I took the opportunity to read it to them, and then ask them what they thought of it.  I listened to their reactions.  They loved the language, they responded to the nurturing spirit of the tree and felt sorry for the boy as he got older and sadder.  Recognizing that their reaction was as legitimate as my objections, and yet believing that my objections were also valid, I talked a little bit with them about my own feelings, that relationships, even between parent and child, should not be one sided.  Then I let it go.

Because ultimately, I believe that reading The Giving Tree would ultimately not make as big an impact in my children’s lives as how I responded to it, and how I responded to other situations where selflessness and unconditional love came into play.  Had I refused to let my kids read the book, or had I spoken vehemently against it, I would have at best been questioning their own burgeoning emotional responses and at worst have been setting an intolerant example of authority stifling curiosity.  Those would be a far more harmful lessons than objecting to self-exploitation for a friend, even when done out of love, as illustrated in a children’s book.

And after all, if we dictate to our children when they are young of what they can read and how they should think, then what other powers will hold sway over them later, without scrutiny?  If we teach them that what we do not agree with cannot be tolerated, that opposing viewpoints have no legitimacy in even being allowed expression, then how can we expect them to successfully function in a diverse world?  How can we trust them to examine their own feelings and beliefs throughout their lives unless they first can be in a caring environment where they can reject or reinforce for themselves those feelings and beliefs?  It’s far better to say, “See, this is what I cannot agree with, for this reason” rather than “You are forbidden from reading this because it is wrong.”  It’s far better to say, “This bothers me,” or “I don’t like this,” or even “I don’t agree with this, and here’s why” rather than “You can’t. Period.”   Rather than pretending like whatever is objectionable doesn’t even exist.

Take away opportunity, even a frightening or challenging opportunity, and we limit those we love.  We do that.  We deny dialog.  We stifle expression.  Tell a child that he cannot read something, and we send the message that we don’t trust him.  When we say “no” rather than “not yet”, we reinforce her unworthiness, her weakness.  When we deny him even the potential of something other than ourselves, then we shrink his world for the days to come.  We weaken the foundation on which she will be building her world.

Surely that’s not what we want for our children.  We want them to think, to explore, to run, to fly.  Even if at times they stumble, even if at times they see something ugly, even if at times they confront something that scares them, or makes them question their own responses.  It’s better that they encounter doubt and disparity and otherness when we can there be there to guide them, to listen to them and to help them with their reactions and their questions, rather than later, when they are on their own.  We want them to be strong and limitless rather than unable to deal with opposition and uncontrollable change.

And there’s no better way to showing our kids just how wonderful and diverse and wide open our world is, than to let them read, anything and everything they can, while we are there for them.  While we can bolster them and strengthen them, and give them a safe place to grow and explore.  Even if sometimes it’s hard.  Even if sometimes it’s uncomfortable.

Because we love them, and because ultimately, we want to protect them.

~ Sharon Browning