Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Tough Job of Parenting


Some dingbat at WorldNetDaily is very excited about Facts on Fiction, a site that helps parents choose “safe” books for their children.

The site rates each book according to a number of simple criteria: there are easy-to-read charts for mature subject matter; profanity; sexual content; violence/illegal activity; tobacco/alcohol/drugs; and disrespectful/anti-social elements.

The reviewers have definitely done their homework. The chart for Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl reveals it to be more or less free of anti-social content – on the familial level, at any rate - although there are “multiple brief instances” of “arguing/disrespect without consequences.” (Those Frank children were downright spoiled, if you ask me.)

The book also features “frightening scenes,” or if you prefer, “situations that create fear.” Fortunately, you can click a link to get more specific objections, as thus:

There are constant references to the violence of WWII and the Holocaust.
It does seem a bit gratuitous, when you put it like that.

James and the Giant Peach - a book I personally found distasteful as a child – has some problems, too:
ARGUING WITHOUT CONSEQUENCES
p. 57-59 The group argues about their fate.

EXPRESSIONS OF BAD ATTITUDES
p. 103-105 Insulting remarks by Centipede result in an attack by the Cloud-Men.
The first complaint has such profound philosophical implications that I scarcely feel qualified to address it. Suffice it to say that if I’d been directed to this site at an impressionable age, and read this entry, I’d probably be living under a freeway overpass today.

Regarding pages 103 to 105, I find it strange that after all these complaints about books in which disrespect brings no consequences, we’re now supposed to fret over books that take the opposite approach. John Yoo or Alberto Gonzalez could fashion a massive legal juggernaut around the concept that centipedes who insult cloud-men must pay a price. But when Roald Dahl says it, there’s a problem.

The points here are too obvious to belabor, but that rarely stops me. The moralistic approach to teaching literature had one of its greatest and most sensitive adherents in Flannery O’Connor; the fact that even she couldn’t quite manage to make a sensible argument for it ought to be instructive.

At the very least, a parent who wants to screen books in this way needs to have the decency to read them herself, instead of cribbing from someone else's absurd laundry list of imagined faults, and clucking over examples of disrespectful behavior and tobacco abuse among people who are en route to a state-administered death camp.

Granted, the understanding of culture tends to be simplistic across the political spectrum, and I know lefties whose grounds for judging works of art are every bit as thoughtless and reflexive as those of their conservative counterparts. It’s typical of our strange, paranoiac brand of optimism to assume that we can simply reduce art to a couple of simple propositions, and judge it accordingly.

This isn’t to say that it’s wrong to mediate or even restrict children’s access to certain material. It’s not. But you can’t do it this way. The examples above are absurd because they can’t be anything but absurd, given that the scope and intentions of projects like these will always be totally incommensurable with what art is and does.

According to WND, this site makes “the tough job of parenting just a little bit easier.” It does indeed make parenting easier, and that’s precisely what’s wrong with it. It rewards parental laziness, and legitimates parental ignorance. It makes parents worse, not better, while teaching children that they don’t even have to read Cliffs Notes to learn what they need to know about a book. Worst of all, it punishes children for the emotional problems of adults, in the name of protecting their innocence. If children are to be protected from “situations that create fear,” they probably shouldn’t be encouraged to think of books as the intellectual equivalent of sweaty-palmed strangers with candy.

But then, I would say that. After all, I was corrupted in my youth by a story in which steroid-enhanced rodents fed sleeping powder to a cat.

10 comments:

Buckeye, Dealer of Rare Coins said...

I loved James and the Giant Peach.

My parents never censored my reading. If they questions about my reading, we'd discuss them. They'd also realized that children don't see books, even children's books, through the same eyes as an adult, and whatever 'bad' stuff was in the book I probably wasn't going to pick up at that stage anyway.

These people suck.

Phila said...

Buckeye,

Same here. I can't imagine how I would've turned out if they'd run to a website, looked up a couple of charts, and then said "You can't read this."

These people suck.

I think you're definitely on to something.

ellroon said...

I have a friend who was terrified by Bambi. (The terror in the Disney movies is another whole issue.)

I was badly frightened by old woodcuts of Pinnochio in an pre-Disney kid's book. You just can't protect kids from every little thing they may trip over. You have to give them the tools to cope and the ability to ask questions.

Censorship gives weight to the very thing you are trying to block. It would be better to discuss it with your children, explain why you don't like something. Conversation not silence is what is needed, because children have sensitive radars and will hone in on it.

They will also fill any void with misinformation. Better to talk about things openly than let the children create their own bizarre world in secret.

Phila said...

I was badly frightened by old woodcuts of Pinnochio in an pre-Disney kid's book.

Makes sense to me. I was frightened by all sorts of strange stuff myself.

Conversation not silence is what is needed, because children have sensitive radars and will hone in on it.

Well said. I do think the people who try to control their children in this way are giving them much more frightening emotional input than most of these books could.

OHDeaconess said...

Literature should open discussions and conversation. What scares one kid won't scare another.

My youngest was afraid to sleep in his room. Found out there was a book at school that he read that had things that came out of the closet at night (not "where the wild things are" cute things, scary things). My husband put sliding locks on the outside of the closet doors and problem was solved. If only we could do that to the white house......

As my fellow Ohioan said, these people do, in fact, suck.

Phila said...

Literature should open discussions and conversation. What scares one kid won't scare another.

To be fair, the FOF people say as much on their "About" page. They seem to be eager to distance themselves from the more grotesque censorship-oriented groups. But as the Anne Frank example shows, it's not really possible. The whole idea is inherently grotesque.

That reminds me: one thing I read that kept me up all night when I was about eight was an account of Joan of Arc being burned at the stake, which ended with the image of her heart lying unsinged among the ashes. Scared the bejabbers out of me, as the saying is.

I wonder how many of the kids whose book choices will be screened via FOF will be dragged by their parents to see Passion of the Christ?

Phila said...

At 3:52 PM, Buckeye, Dealer of Rare Coins said...
I loved James and the Giant Peach.


I read it more than once, like most of his books, so it's not like I hated it. But there was a certain nastiness to 'em that bothered me on some level. Not so much the nastiness itself, as the particular quality of it.

Just one of those unpredictable reactions kids have...

Nanette said...

I'm trying to imagine what life would have been like had my mom used this sort of thing to screen our books. For one thing, she'd have been one busy lady! We had books everywhere, about all sorts of things, classics to trash.

Arguing without consequences... shades of tabasco sauce on the tongue.

With books, you really lose control of your kids (or anyone else), if only for a while. There just is no way to control how their minds will react to a book, if they'll enter the fictional world and live it out for a time, or completely reject it or what. And for some I guess that is terrifying, or something. Control seems very important to some people.

I don't recall being afraid of anything in a book when I was a kid (except for Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which I read way too young - pre teen, didn't understand and actually carried out to the trash to throw it away when I finished it).

Phila said...

And for some I guess that is terrifying, or something. Control seems very important to some people.

Yeah, that's pretty clearly what it boils down to...

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