On the Notion of “Protecting” Children From What They Might Read

I have a lot of feelings about banning books and “sanitizing” them for children or telling children they can’t read certain books (or at least can’t read them yet). I don’t think I could have put better words to my feelings, though, than Melissa Scholes Young did for her piece in the Washington Post.

I grew up in a country with heavy censorship rules. Lots of books, magazines, TV shows, and movies never made it into the country at all. Those that did were subject to “editing” – a movie with a romantic scene of, say, two people kissing would look like this:  two people leaning closer together, then suddenly leaning apart. The censors didn’t even do a pretty job of it – they simply removed the kiss.  Talk shows with an unfavorable guest – that person’s segment would be edited out, regardless of references elsewhere in the show to that guest. Sesame Street would be edited – no scenes with pigs in them, as they are vile, unclean animals. Mumford the Magician, instead of saying “A la peanut butter sandwiches!” would mouth words silently for a second, then you’d hear “…peanut butter sandwiches!”  It didn’t matter than the “a la” part was actually French. It sounded just like “Allah”, and you just don’t take God’s name in vain. Or in jest. Or anything else, really. Archie comic books would show up with black marker all over the girls’ swimsuits, so you didn’t see too much skin. They never blacked out the boys’ shorts or chests, just the girls’. A popular children’s magazine at the time put out an issue with a feature on a kid from Israel. I think it was about the growing popularity of soccer around the world, or something as intense as that. But because the kid was Israeli, and Israel was, shall we say, not in political favor, the censors ripped out that section of Every. Single. Copy. of that magazine before putting it on the magazine racks in the grocery store.

I grew up in an area of mostly Americans, some Brits, and a small percentage of folks from other countries. Most everyone ranted at some time or other about how oppressive the censorship was, how much better it was in other countries, especially in the US with their Freedom of Speech and all that.

Then I move back to the US and I hear how determined one group or another is to ban one book or another, to forbid the very mention of certain topics, But Who Will Think Of The Childern! Someone Must Protect The Childern! (misspelling intended for dramatic wailing and rending of garments). Are you freaking kidding me? We’re supposed to be the Land of the Free and the Brave! Freedom of Speech! IT’S THE FIRST FREAKING AMENDMENT TO THE CONSTITUTION, BECAUSE IT’S THAT DAMNED IMPORTANT.

Children are way smarter than most grownups give them credit for. More flexible in their thinking, more resilient than most grownups think too. I’ve been working with children my entire adult life, and a fair share of my life before I turned 21, for that matter. Children have an amazing capacity for understanding and adapting, when given honest opportunities. Children also have a pretty decent ability to figure some things out for themselves, given sufficient input. Lying to them, removing possibilities from them, deliberately misleading them, this does no one any good. What happens when those children find out you’ve been bullshitting them this entire time? They cease to believe anything further you have to say.  Give them age-/developmentally-appropriate information and vocabulary, sure. Protect them from everything in the world that is or might be scary?  If you remove all conflict, all risk, all potential danger, how in the world do you expect them to develop any skills to manage such moments on their own, down the road? Instead, help them navigate those moments. Help your children see those conflicts and risks and dangers for what they are – opportunities to observe, evaluate, reason, plan, and move forward. As you are doing so, use age-/developmentally-appropriate language and concepts and examples. Add to that information and vocabulary as they grow up and their cognitive skills develop. Give them credit for being the thinking, reasoning, functional human beings they are becoming.

While you’re thinking about that, here are some children’s books that have been challenged and banned over the years.  Which of these have you read? How thoroughly were you damaged by them? Do you read any of these with your own children? How comfortable are you given these as presents to someone else’s children?

Me? I’d read everything here except the Harry Potter books by the age of 12. And yet, somehow, by all accounts, I’ve turned out to be a reasonably well-adjusted, somewhat appropriately-social, contributing member of society.


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