To Read or Not to Read: The Parenting Question
A friend of mine sent this article my way. It’s a parent’s reflection on another parent’s choice to censor Harry Potter as she reads it aloud to her five-year-old son.
I highly recommend checking it out because this article brings up some excellent points. First off, if you find yourself so concerned about the material in a book (or anything else) that you have to constantly edit it, don’t read it. Give it a few years. Harry Potter will still be there when the child in question is six or seven or even eight. Secondly, the article points out that this is not about the child’s discomfort, but the parent’s.
Kids are resilient. They see things they don’t understand or that frighten them every day. It’s stories that frighten them that allow them to work through their fear (for more on that see here and here). For god’s sake, we read kids fairy tales. Those can be pretty disturbing, however much newer editions and movies may try to sanitize them.
Voldemort killing Harry will not scar them the way this mother thinks it will. Many children’s books or programming contain the death of a parent, a child main character in peril, and often some sort of genocide or other act of war in the story’s very set up. These things roll off kids like rain off a duck. If kids are bothered by anything they see or read, they can discuss it with their parents. And that’s what many parents seem most afraid of.
Judy Blume once brought up this same point about her books. It’s not that kids aren’t ready for the puberty and teen problems and budding sexuality in Blume’s books; it’s that parents aren’t ready for their kids to start asking them questions about it.
Which leads me to the most important point this article brings up: if your kids know you are censoring their bedtime story or dodging a word or question or that you’re uncomfortable with a topic of conversation, you won’t be the one they come to to discuss it. They’ll either keep it to themselves or get their answers from someone else, both of which risk misinformation or unnecessary anxiety.
Another mother learned that discussing material she was uncomfortable with with her children was far more rewarding than skipping over it. You can hear about her experience reading (and censoring) Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing with her children here. This particular mother had been skipping the word “stupid” as she did not like how often it was used. However, her older child began to notice her censorship and it became a much bigger deal than just saying the word would be.
Once the word was out in the open it allowed her to discuss it with her children. They then opened up about other kids calling them stupid, the mother shared stories about being a kid herself and using the word, and both children later privately confessed wanting to call each other stupid instead of keeping it all bottled up. This conversation allowed this mother and her children to both open up and share feelings that otherwise would not have been discussed, proving that confronting issues with your children is far better for all parties than sweeping life’s less rosy bits under the rug.
As the mother in question says, “My refusing to acknowledge the word ‘stupid’ didn’t make the word go away. It just made them feel guilty for thinking it, and unprepared for what to do with that feeling. When had I become such a verbal prude? And if I couldn’t have open discussions with them about something as simple as the word ‘stupid’ how would we ever get through the really hard things, like sex and love and hate? Thank you for helping me remember, and for opening up an unexpected way for me to communicate and laugh with my daughters” (dear Judy Blume).
The mother reading Harry Potter could take a leaf out of the Judy Blume fan’s book. Yet she not only edited out objectionable content, she added consequences when she felt the book was not clear enough on good vs. bad behaviour. If she needs clear morals, perhaps she should stick to Aesop’s Fables or The Book of Virtues until she and/or her child are old enough to confront the world’s less cut and dry realities. And sometimes you just need to trust that the author has a reason for what they’re doing.
This is a different form of censorship than we’ve discussed thus far, having focused outside the home (schools, libraries, governments, etc), yet many of the issues and consequences are the same. Of course parents have the right to do whatever they want with bedtime stories. It’s their kid and their home.
However, parents worried about how books might affect their child should consider the full cost of their shortsighted solution. Your child won’t always have you to screen their books for them. Teaching them the analytical skills to really consider or even debate what they read and the knowledge that they can discuss their feelings or confusion with you, on the other hand, will stay with them long after they outgrow bedtime stories.
Any thoughts on this? Did your parents ever change the words or the end when reading with you? Have you ever censored something for a child?