On Parental Guidance and Banned Books

Posted: 24/05/2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

Progress is going well on my shawl.  I’ve just used up the fibre plyed so far, and am a scant 15 rows away from finishing the first wing.  I expect the singles I have spun and ready to ply will be enough to do the second wing and maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of the edging, joining and miscellaneous shaping rows.

But I wanted to talk about something not craft-related.

I watched the latest Swindon Town Swoodilypoopers over on Hank Games, in which John Green talks about parents moving to have reading materials banned in schools, and had some thoughts.  First, here’s a link to the video if you want to watch and listen to his words and get some context for the post.  Second, some clarification of my perspective.  I’m British, born and raised and educated in England.  I have no idea if banning books from schools is even a thing we have a framework for in this country, and it’s certainly not something I can ever remember hearing about happening in the UK.  We do have a standardised curriculum across the country though.

My first thought is that, ultimately, children aren’t property.  They aren’t owned by their parents.  At the same time, they aren’t owned by the government or society, either.  Adults – both individuals and adults as a collective group – are the guardians of children and have a responsibility to help them grow to be the best people they can be.  When a young girl, who could grow to become a pioneering surgeon, a writer of heart-wrenchingly elegant stories or the leader of her country is prevented from achieving any of those things because she is forbidden from learning to read, we recognise that as a tragedy.  But sometimes, people forget that a similar tragedy takes place every time a child is forbidden from learning about evolution, or from reading any books other than a single religious text, or scolded for asking a question that the adults find difficult to answer, or led to a life of fear and shame about their future adult sex life because they were never allowed to see intimacy as anything other that shameful.

That doesn’t mean parents should have no input over the lessons their children learn, not at all.  But parents should not be controlling what is learned in school, because as I see it, school education is the bare minimum.  School education is the start of a process – not it’s entirety.  Parents can and should have their own conversations with their children about subjects, and children should be learning at home just as they do in school.  That isn’t hard to achieve – everything a child does involves learning.  Listening to adults using full words and complex sentences gives children expanded vocabularies.  Helping in the kitchen teaches them not only how to cook but how to enjoy cooking.  Play teaches them everything from social concepts to the limits of their own body to how to be imaginative.

When I was a child, I had nightmares a lot.  I got sick often, with fevers, and it wasn’t at all unusual for me to experience delerium.  I sometimes had trouble separating the weird things I saw when sick or overtired from reality, and I had a lot of disturbing dreams.  This started long before I ever learned to read, or watched any TV that wasn’t explicitly for kids, or had even a single disturbing experience.

And one day, I started reading my mum’s horror novels.  Now, my mum taught me to read before I started infants school.  She read with me and encouraged me to grow my own personal collection of books – there was a set of shelves built into my bed next to my pillow, specifically for my books.  And while I had my own books, she never forbade me from reading anything in the house, from the newspaper to cookbooks to her collection of classic novels.  I first picked up an adult horror story – I think it was a Stephen King book about rats – when I was around seven or eight years old.  The content was scary, but it didn’t traumatise me.  My mum talked to me about the book, about what I’d read and about a lot more besides.

We talked about the fact that what was written in the book wasn’t real,  just a made-up story.  That lots of people have dreams and nightmares, and some people who are particularly good at being imaginative turn their dreams into stories, that end up in books for other people to read.  We talked about the fact that my mum was scared of rats, but that rats aren’t actually evil like in the book, and we looked at an educational book about rodents at the library.  We talked about the fact that, in the books (at least the ones I’d read at that point), scary things happen, but the good guys always win.  That the monsters go away, and that the people who wrote the stories wrote them that way on purpose – because the exciting good ending can’t happen without the scary stuff that happens first.

And I learned.  I learned that the bad dreams I had weren’t real, that lots of people had them and that it was normal and okay to feel afraid.  I learned that I could imagine better endings to bad dreams.  When I woke up from a nightmare, instead of crying or running into my mum’s bed, I’d curl up into a safe corner of the bed with a stuffed toy, wrap myself tight and imagine an ending to the dream.  One night, the scary camel that walked on two legs that was chasing me never caught me, because I hid in a labyrinth until the camel got lost, and never found its way out again.  Another night, the alien-in-a-jar that was chasing me couldn’t catch me, because I discovered that if I ran fast enough over the landing and past where the stairs started, I’d run through the air and never fall down.  Some dreams I won because I grew wings, or had magic powers, or found an enchanted sword and fought back, or found out the monster was really kind and just scared.  I got better at thinking up creative solutions to things.  I might re-enact a particular dream all week with my toys, coming up with better and better ways for the good guys to win.  And then I started writing them down.

I wrote silly little comics and story books involving characters I created.  And when I was ten, I wrote and illustrated a children’s story about a broken old, lonely teddy bear, and was invited to visit my local infant’s school to read it for the kids there at story-time.  That same year, I had a poem published in a local amateur anthology sponsored by the library, and a second poem the year after that.  When I was twelve, I finished my first novel – an admittedly terrible but very fun story about a fox and a badger, who go on a quest to save their world from a mermaid-turned-evil.

I’m still writing, today.  And all because, when I first pulled that horror novel off my mum’s bookshelf, she didn’t forbid me from reading it.  Instead, she read it with me, and talked to me about the content.

My mum’s approach to that horror novel reflected the approach she took to all my learning.  No question was inappropriate, no learning material I sought out was off limits, and nothing in school was forbidden.  But she would always be there, to talk with me, to ask how I felt about the thing I’d learned, to discuss the morality behind it, or the evidence, or lack of.  Sometimes she might say “I don’t think you’re ready to read/watch that, yet”, but that was always a suggestion, never an ultimatum.  And I grew up into a teenager that she didn’t have to worry about.  She never had to worry that exposure to certain materials would send me down the wrong path, because she’d given me a mental toolkit that allowed me to critically analyse what I read, saw and heard.  To question what I was taught, to do my own research and form my own judgements.  And she helped me build my own personal moral framework, ever-evolving, through which to view the world and everything in it.

Does that mean I never did anything she approved of?  Never did anything stupid, or came to a poorly-formed opinion on a subject?  Of course not!  But those mistakes are an inevitable part of being a growing human, and the mental tools she’d already gifted to me helped me deal with and grow from those mistakes as a more aware person.

I think parents should certainly be having conversations about controversial school subjects and learning materials.   But I think they should be having those conversations with their children.

  1. I concur! Learning is a huge process and doesn’t start with banning certain kinds of literature – you have to allow people to discover who they are! Great article, well written 🙂

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