During my twenty years of teaching, when the subject of age appropriate reading material came up, the first thing concerned parents usually bring up is the possibility of their child encountering sexual material. It’s seldom violence, almost always about sex, especially parents of girls. The questions intensified as middle grade and young adult literature increasingly lifted the lid on what once were considered no-nos.
After a few years of flailing in a futile effort to find a definition that would fit every situation, my response was to shape my answer, and recommendation, to each family’s particular concerns and to what I thought that particular child could handle. This works great when one has the luxury of dealing with individuals. But what about groups who ask for guidance in book choices? Classroom parents, library group parents, new teachers at a con looking for book lists, groups of adults belonging to this or that organization. I sat on committees to evaluate books for classroom use. And I had my own two guinea pigs at home.
There are so many landmines possible in discussing this subject: parental control versus “the world,” what the word “innocence” means, values held by the family, all serious subjects. Those were the adult concerns. What about the kids’ concerns? The toughie for them–the thing that turned so many kids away from reading–was the pain they felt when they hit something they weren’t ready for. And you can’t always predict that. An otherwise innocuous book that has one reference to sex will mostly zoom right past young readers who just aren’t very interested in what adults do behind closed doors. Violence hurt them if pain was depicted especially vividly, though most kids shrugged off numbers of falling redshirts because none of it felt real. Real pain hit the hardest, especially unjust pain. So many young readers felt utterly undone–betrayed–by “dead animal” stories, which are a firmly established subgenre, including among them many award winners. “I stopped reading after that horrible book The Yearling they stuck us with in fifth grade.” How many times have I heard that over the years? I don’t mean just from kids, but from adults.
That said, parents are still going to bring the subject right back to We have certain values in our family, which includes keeping sexual content away from them until an appropriate age. It would be wrong to slamdunk parents who want to protect their children. As times change with frightening rapidity, so many parents strive to inculcate some values in their children, however they define “values.” I touched on a troubling aspect of this in a blog a couple of weeks ago, when I mentioned how I’ve seen the struggle to control information build walls between adults and children in families, usually centered around parents determined to keep their girls “pure” by controlling their entertainment and refusing to answer pertinent questions, driving the determined kid to get her information from the play yard and not tell her parents.
If a child feels she is going to be punished for asking a question, she is not going to forget the question. It’s more likely to bother her even more, eventually prompting her to seek answers anywhere she can get them. Meanwhile, who is there to talk to in safety if she is deeply disturbed by something she wasn’t ready for–a book that yanks away her fragile sense of how the world works–if asking hard questions at home gets you grounded or worse? What one kid accepts with a shrug is a major world view shaker for another kid. One generalization I can offer, however tentatively, is that most kids favor just endings over unjust, they feel better about themselves and about the experience of reading if moral worth is rewarded. We all know what the Real World can be like, the question remains, how much of the Real World do we let into our kids’ lives and when . . . if we are given the comfort of choice?
These are questions that keep many parents awake nights, and I don’t have any easy answers. The hard answers take a lifetime to tell.
Here’s what I finally decided to say to parents when asked about reading lists, age appropriate books, and so forth:
Read the books yourself.
Discuss them with your kids in an atmosphere of safety. (That means don’t punish them for asking questions. How much you answer is up to you.)
What does that lead to? Family reading! Book discussion! Talk that leads to every subject under the sun–history, language, philosophy, food, behavior, who we are and how we fit into this universe. An exchange of ideas that demonstrates to the kids that yes, your parents really do have your back, even if the rest of the world seems kinda iffy.