Should We Censor Our Childrens’ Reading Choices?

If you’re a parent, you are most likely inundated daily with child-rearing choices you hope won’t screw up your kids.  We wouldn’t want to give them more fodder for their future therapists, now would we?  And if you are a reading family, books are going to cross your radar at one time or another.  Are we reading enough with them?  Are they reading enough?  What are they reading?  And on and on.

My daughter has a paper route.  She’s 11.  This afternoon she went out to spend some of her paycheck at Wal-Mart.  I was convinced she would come back with art supplies since drawing is a passion of her’s.  Imagine my surprise when she strode through the door bearing books!  Bestill my beating heart!  Needless to say, I was delighted!  Then, as she proudly showed me her choices, my overwhelming joy gave way to some slight trepidation.  These are the books she chose.

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Oh.  Boy.  My sweet little girl has picked up three adult murder mysteries and is now beaming at me, obviously waiting with bated breath for the expected approval.  What is a mother to do??

Well, I got excited and told her I wanted to read them too and I was so proud of her for choosing to buy books.

And cue the judgy Facebook posts……NOW.

We censor just about everything in our childrens’ lives.  Movies.  Television.  Internet usage.  But what about books??  I want her to read, right?  But what if those books contain subject matter that I want to shelter her from?  For the answer to this, I thought back to my own young reading life and called upon the wisdom of reading gurus who help me make professional decisions every day.

As a child, I read a lot.  A LOT.  I remember once getting a stern lecture from a nun for reading during the Lord’s Prayer at my Catholic high school.  I was like, WHAT?  THE BOOK IS THAT GOOD!  Needless to say, I was only there a year.  My mother was not a reader and never tried to censor my reading.  She couldn’t.  That would require knowing about or reading all of the books that I read.  A full-time job does not allow for that, especially for someone who has never been motivated to read in the first place.  I read a lot of books that would make me shudder if my own daughter read them.  She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb was my favourite book around the age of 13 or 14.  It features a particularly brutal rape of a 13 year old, as well as consensual sexual content scenes better not discussed here.  I also had a few Harlequin Romance novels that I particularly enjoyed.  I am not damaged from the experience.

In fact, my early reading experiences shaped me as the reader I am simply because I was allowed to choose.  I was motivated to read because no one ever limited me.  Books were a free-for-all in my world, and as well they should be.  I didn’t have the freedom to do whatever I wanted or stay out as late as I wanted.  I couldn’t watch all of the movies or TV shows that I wanted.  BUT…I could read what I wanted.  And that was powerful.

I just went to a wonderfully inspirational talk by the great teacher of reading, Donalyn Miller.  She said, “When you diminish a child’s reading choices, you diminish the child making those choices.”  Sing it, sister!  I know that there are all kinds of concerns for parents.  Will the book give them nightmares?  Will it disturb them or make them fearful of the world around them?  What if a book exposes them to something that I wanted to talk with them about first?  Let me ask you this:  What if a child’s desire to read is dimmed by a judgemental comment about what they choose to read?  That, to me, seems like an even greater danger with significantly more longterm effects.

I’m not saying that we should provide all our children with copies of American Psycho but I do think that books can be a relatively safe space to deal with issues.  A reader can choose to put the book down if the reading becomes too uncomfortable.  A reader makes their own pictures in their mind.  A movie, TV show, or Internet website is out of their control, in their face media.  A reader can only imagine what the brain allows.

I also think that parents can, and should, be reading with or alongside their children.  I read the synopses of the books my daughter bought today.  I plan on reading them myself.  But I also plan on respecting her choices even if she gets to read the book before I do.  I talked with her about these kinds of thrillers and told her that we could discuss any uncomfortable subject matter that arose from the reading of them, judgement-free.

Books are marketed as adult or young adult based on who the publisher feels will consume them with the greatest fervor.  I have read many YA books and I don’t feel ashamed for it at all.  It.  Is.  A.  Label.  Nothing more.  Of course, different subject matter will appeal to different ages.  That’s natural.  But young people develop at different rates, have different levels of support at home, prefer different types of texts.  If I don’t stick to my “recommended age” why would I expect my daughter to adhere to the same artificial labels?

You can agree with me or not.  I see very credible points on both sides of this issue.  All I’m saying is, we want our kids to be readers.  We want them to be responsible decision makers.  Why then, would we censor their choices about reading?



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