Sunday, June 2, 2013

Judging "Inappropriate Content"

This morning I was at a Barnes and Noble here in Houston, where I'm staying while I wait for the increasingly late moving truck to arrive at my new apartment in Austin.  I was looking at a display table in the YA section, when I overheard a young girl, who was around thirteen years old, talking with her mother.  They were at the next table, discussing a book the girl wanted.  It was a hardcover book and the mother flat out told her daughter that she wouldn't buy her a book that she would only read once in hardcover, which I totally understand.  My mom had the same rule when I was growing up and now I pretty much have the same rule for myself.  Foreseeing the girl's disappointment in not getting a book she wanted, a feeling I myself know well, (and unable to miss the chance to talk books) I decided to suggest a book that I really like and that I had noticed was sitting next to the book the girl wanted.

"Have you read Divergent?" I asked.  The girl shook her head and the mom jumped in.

"Do you think it's a book she would like?" she asked.  I found this to be an odd question.  How the hell would I know?  I mean, I guess I must have had some idea about the girls' interests, but it didn't range far beyond YA and the contents of that table.

"Have you read The Hunger Games?" I asked the girl.

"Oh, she loved it!" her mom said.  Inwardly shaking my head, I told her that yes, I thought her daughter would like Divergent.  "But is there inappropriate content?  I don't let her read books with inappropriate content."

Not having any idea what the words "inappropriate content" meant for this women, I said, "Well, there's some violence...."

"Oh, I don't care about violence," she said.  "But is there drugs or sex?  I've had to take some of these books away from her, because of all the drugs and sex."

"No," I said.  "No drugs or sex.  There's some kissing, but that's about it."

"Oh, that's okay," she said while her daughter picked up the book, without a question of her own (the sign of a voracious reader - one who will pick up a book at the slightest recommendation).

I'm not sure where to start with this whole exchange.  My husband was with me and the first thing he said as the girl and her mother disappeared behind a bookshelf was, "So she just takes her daughter's books away instead of using them as an opportunity to talk about those things?"  My first reaction was to the fact that the mother had no problem with violence (a societal issue) but was adamantly opposed to drugs and sex (individual problems).  It's like people who fight for the right to own semi-automatic weapons but oppose homosexuality.  Somehow the risk of death and injury to large numbers of people is more acceptable than people doing something in their private lives that doesn't actually affect anybody else.  (I'm not even going to talk about all the helicopter parenting that was going on.  Okay, yes I am - let your kid speak for herself, lady!)

This leads to the whole question of what should be considered "appropriate" content, for teens as well as kids and even adults.  Framed in the right conversation, is there even any real inappropriate content?  Are the topics that, at certain ages, we just can't handle no matter what the context or portrayal?  And does it really do a kid any good to just ban her from certain things for fear of inappropriate content?  I agree with my husband - while I might not want my own future child to read certain books (Twilight comes to mind), I'd rather use it as a springboard for a conversation than just ban it outright.  Banning things tends to just make them more attractive anyway.  I'd bet that girl has probably finished every one of those books that her mother has taken away - I know that I would have found a way to if my mom had ever taken away any of my books.

What do you think?  Do you think that some books should be kept from kids for their own good or can the right conversation make them acceptable?  And if you do think some books should be restricted, how do you choose?  What constitutes inappropriate content?

10 comments:

  1. When my kids were very young (early elementary school), I kept a closer eye on what they read. But as they approached tween/teen, I gave them free range, as long as we could talk about it. My mother did the same thing with me, and guess what--I didn't end up doing drugs or having sex at 13. Nor do I own a gun or have physically harmed anyone. I think your husband hit the nail on the head--take the opportunity to talk to your kids about what's in the books, not bar them. Besides, you can bet those kids will find a way around your forbidding it anyway.

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    1. I agree that it's important to know what your kids are reading but discuss it, not to control it. There's such a big difference, which that lady clearly did not get.

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  2. "Banning things tends to just make them more attractive anyway" SO TRUE. I do think there may be certain books that you ban from kids, at least for awhile. Maybe you feel that at a certain age they aren't appropriate (even with a discussion) but later they will be. That said, I can't remember my mom banning me from reading any books and I think I turned out fine.

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    1. Yeah, I agree, though I couldn't really think of any examples other than porn, and that's kind of a duh. I guess it would also depend on the kid - if she tends to have nightmares or something, you'd probably want to discourage her from reading horror stories or something. I was never banned from anything either and yeah...just fine, I think.

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  3. My parents were much more chill about letting us read/watch sexual content than violent content, as I recall, and most protective of all when it came to sexual violence (hooray, because that shit is upsetting). That said, I don't remember them ever telling me not to read a book I wanted to read -- the one exception being The Color Purple, which my mother said "You can read it now if you want, but I want you to love it as much as I do, and you'll love it more if you wait a few years." So I did. I trust her.

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    1. That makes sooo much more sense to me. And The Color Purple is a WONDERFUL book!

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  4. My mom was a lot like that mom, and it was way worse than helicopter parenting. It was trying to prevent me from developing into my own person with my own thoughts/ideas/voice. The fact that she prevented her daughter from speaking or interacting or voicing any of her own ideas (even just whether or not she liked The Hunger Games ffs) is far more upsetting to me than her mother's guidelines on what she considered "appropriate" or not.

    Of course, I think teens should be able to read what they want, but I think that preventing her daughter from expressing any individual personhood is indicative of a much more harmful childrearing problem than having slightly too strict rules.

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    1. Wow, that sounds so difficult for you, though from what I can tell it was unsuccessful! I'm sure that it took a lot of work on your part to prevent that from being the outcome. And I agree, not letting her daughter speak is even worse. I focused on the book aspect because this is a blog post but at the time, that bothered me even more. I felt so bad for this kid who wasn't even allowed to speak for herself.

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  5. I somehow missed this post the first time around--I think I was away. Anyway, I love everything you've said here, and I'm so glad that you've articulated a problem I've identified but didn't know how to say it: parents who won't let their kids read books with sex & drugs but are okay with violence. It somehow didn't occur to me that these are societal vs individual behaviors and now I'm even more upset about it.

    And as for parents who won't let their kids speak for themselves...I've had to walk away from customers before because they were frustrating me so much doing that. Had to "tag-team" in another bookseller and hve them take over because otherwise I might have had strong words. Strong words with a customer apparently doesn't equal good customer service, apparently.

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    1. I can imagine that that would drive you crazy on a regular basis! It's unfortunate though that we all feel the need to be polite, because in the end it could be good for the kid for a non-abusive parent to hear that that's not okay.

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