A photograph showing a mushroom cloud rising over a destroyed city. A poem that mentions Emmett Till. An illustration of a naked boy touching his penis. A character conceived in incest. A monkey-like caricature of an ethnic stereotype. Osama bin Laden. The “n”-word.
If you are a parent, you have probably encountered the situation in which your children have read, or seen, something that is difficult for you to talk about with them. Maybe they’re not mature enough to understand the context, or that a piece is intended as satire. Maybe it is such a scary thing that you are sure they will have nightmares. Maybe the implicit bias of an author is subtly preaching prejudices you find abhorrent.
As a school librarian and former public children’s services librarian, a reviewer of children’s literature, an avid reader of parenting advice, and a parent of two, I have encountered this situation more times than I can count. Here are some suggestions:
1) Keep calm. When you make a big deal out of something, your child is confirmed in his/her notions that this thing is a big deal. If you calmly say, “hey, I heard that there are some scary things that happen in this book. Did you know that when you checked it out?” your child is much more likely to be open with you. The converse: “This is disgusting! I forbid you to read this!” Guess what usually happens when that is the reaction?
2) Think about it from your child’s point of view. What your child gets out of a book may not be the same thing you do. I once had a fourth grader who read the entire Harry Potter series, and loved to talk at length about the spells, characters, and foods at Hogwarts. But when I asked her how she felt about a character’s death in the 4th book, she looked blankly at me and said, “he died?”
Some will say that if a child is not comprehending everything in a text, he/she is “reading too high,” and that the book is therefore “too difficult.” Pause for a minute before going down this path, and remember that there are many more reasons to read than merely comprehension. A child who is reading is improving vocabulary, fluency, metacognition, cultural awareness, reasoning, questioning, and conceptual abilities. He/she is developing a sense of self-efficacy, imagination, wonder, identity, and often opening doors to social inclusion.
The difference between your understanding and your child’s is especially relevant when it comes to images. Today’s non-fiction is chock-full of imagery. Younger children often love to look at pictures and diagrams in books written for an older audience, such as pictures of guns, comic-book-style human bodies, and scary monsters. Rarely will they read even the captions, much less the text.
3) Consider why your child is attracted to that book/topic. Be careful about assuming your child is genuinely curious and really wants to engage with the book/topic. Kids often feel pressure by peers, older siblings, or even teachers to try reading more mature books because others are. Or, alternately, they’ve been told that something is “inappropriate” for them, and they yearn to prove themselves. Perhaps they simply like the cover image.
Do any of these things mean your child really wants to engage with that book or topic? Or is it enough for him/her to walk around with that book, feeling mature? To flip through it, and say they read it? To read it lightly, enough to be able to casually throw out a character’s name amidst a group of peers? To be one of the kids who crosses their fingers when a Wimpy Kid-reading friend’s mom declares “no cheese touch!” at a sleepover?
4) Is this is a learning opportunity… or not? This will, of course, depend on your child, your family values, the topic, the book in question, the way in
which the information was encountered, and how completely your child has comprehended what he/she read or saw.
Gauge your child. Ask probing questions to assess understanding and attitudes about the topic. Be sure to listen to his/her answers. This will help you determine what he/she is ready to learn, and how much of your own lens to impart.
This can be especially tough when it comes to encountering cultural biases in books. Your five-year-old will not immediately understand that Pippi Longstocking’s South Sea Islanders are portrayed stereotypically as a childlike culture in need of European paternalism. Do you gloss over it, or go ahead and explain this as well you think he/she can understand? In these types of cases, I recommend going for it; only by constantly facing prejudice in our world can we ever hope to eradicate it.
But also remember that learning is cumulative: this encounter may be his/her first with the topic in question, but it will not be the last. You will have time later to come back and build upon his/her current level of understanding. Sometimes a child who doesn’t fully comprehend why his/her parent became upset over a book will nonetheless internalize enough so that the next time he/she encounters something similar, he/she will remember that something there just isn’t quite right.
5) Give your child the option of an “out” without losing face. The very definition of seeking information is that the seeker is in a position of not fully knowing something. Sometimes, finding the answer means finding something you don’t want to know. Your child should know that it is always OK to stop reading a book, just as you would allow him/her to turn off a computer game, or encourage him/her to tell a babysitter that ghost stories are too scary at bedtime.
As a parent, there’s nothing wrong with simply asking, “Do you really want to learn about this now? Could we come back to this later?” Often a child will be glad to have that option spelled out for him/her. The book wasn’t what he/she thought it would be, anyway.
6) Children’s attention spans are a lot shorter than ours, and they are resilient. There’s no doubt, it is hard to guide children into this big, scary world. It is not possible to be in complete control of when and where your child will encounter something you think they won’t understand, or that you yourself fear. Although there are ratings on movies and recommended ages on books, those are merely guidelines. Each child is different, each book is different, each person’s experience of life is different.
At the time your child encounters something difficult, you may wish it had been censored from them. It might be a painful learning experience. It might test your ability to parent in the way you wish. At these times, it might help to remember that for your child, this is just one experience within the context of all the other things they are learning at the time. For you it may be traumatic, but for a child, something that happened yesterday is old news… unless, of course, the experience is discussed and repeated, or made especially memorable (see item 1 above).
In conclusion, consider the “worst case scenario.” Your child really wants to read something he/she fully comprehends and which is a) something they know you disagree with, b) something antithetical to your ideas of what he/she should be learning, and/or c) total trash. And he/she rebuffs your involvement in the reading process. Perhaps this is a good time to ask yourself if you believe in the principles of Intellectual Freedom. Do you believe in free speech? Do you have faith that ultimately, “the right to receive ideas is a necessary predicate to the recipient’s meaningful exercise of his own rights of speech, press, and political freedom,” as stated in the Supreme Court’s decision in Board of Education vs. Pico in 1982? Is it at all possible that your child is, actually, ready to make this decision for him/herself?
As adults, our job is to teach our children how to live in our world. Books are a window – and a mirror – to that world, in all its many facets. Encountering horrible things in books is much safer than encountering them in real life. If you think of books this way, it is likely that your child will embrace their learning potential as well.
Rhona Campbell is a Lower Middle School Librarian at Georgetown Day School in the District of Colombia. She has been a youth librarian for 15 years and is a regular contributor to School Library Journal. She is on Twitter at @rcampbellmls