What’s a Parent to Do?

Every so often, some new ultra-violent video game or gore-riddled movie sets of a wave of hysteria which sweeps through the nation’s collective parenthood.  There is wailing, there is gnashing of teeth, there are recriminations and name-calling.  Hollywood is decried as a godless behemoth intent on destroying the moral fabric of the nation’s youth.  Politicians draft elaborate bills with grandiose titles like “The Protect Our Innocent Children From the Evils of Bloody Video Games Act of 1998” and wave said bills in front of television cameras.  Parents vow to guard their children’s viewing habits more closely and children figure out how to sneak out and see exactly what their parents don’t want them to.

I’ve always found these bouts of national indignation incredibly amusing.   Firstly, ranting and raving about an incredibly violent movie does nothing but ensure that every single teenager in America will make it a point to see it, if only to annoy their parents.  Secondly, I fully believe that the moral crusaders’ anger is wildly misdirected.

It should be the books they’re after.

Granted, there is the occasional national conniption over a piece of literature.  I’m thinking primarily of Brad Easton Ellis’ American Psycho which was greeted with a level of disgust and indignation on par with that regularly leveled at Hollywood.

However, on the whole, most books seem to slide under the radar when it comes to parental watchfulness.   In the US, a trip to an R-rated film requires a guardian’s presence.  Public libraries, on the other hand, are stocked to the ceilings with books containing violent and sexual content leagues more explicit than anything available in a suburban multiplex.  Growing up in my family, a trip to the movie warranted a suspicious “What are you seeing?” followed by a careful review for rating and appropriateness.  A trip to the library earned a simple “Good for you.”

I’m sure that I’m not alone in this experience and I can think of a few reasons why this would be so.

1.  Reading is perceived as a ‘good’ activity while watching TV, seeing movies, and playing video games are all brain-rotting wastes of time.   Parents like to see their kids reading, it’s as simple as that.  Just the fact that they are curled up with a book rather than staring aimlessly into an idiot box probably makes Mom and Dad feel good enough not to really question what their kid is actually reading.

2.  Checking movie ratings is easy.  Reading a 500 page book is not.  Flip open to any page in a Stephen King novel (my reading of choice as a 13 year old boy) and the are pretty good that there won’t be anything too objectionable.  Some profanity, perhaps.  Read the whole book, however, and most parents would probably find 30-40% inappropriate for their kid.  This takes a lot of time, however, and time is something that most parents are sorely lacking.

3.  Most parents need not worry about what their kids are reading because, sadly, their kids are most likely not reading.  The most obvious reason parents and politicians make such big fusses about movies is that kids actually go and see movies.  Read books?  Not so much.

Despite this third reason,  the fact remains that adolescents have easy access to printed material that is grossly inappropriate for them.  My recent reading of American Psycho gave me cause to reflect on this.

As a teen and pre-teen, I read quite a bit of adult crime fiction.   A title like American Psycho, had I come across it on a library shelf, would probably have enticed me to pick it up thinking it would be an interesting police-chasing-serial-killer book.  Luckily, the first third of the book would have been impenetrable to a young reader – post-modern stream of consciousness combined with lists of brand names I never would have heard of.   In all likelihood, I would have put it back up on the shelf before finishing the first page.  There is a chance, however, that I might have flipped through to the middle and read a random passage, as I had a tendency to do.

The scenes beginning in second third of the book are too obscene to even attempt describing here, scenes that make the movie adaptation seem as cuddly as Bambi. Certainly not scenes that any 13 year old boy should be confronted with.  At that age, there’s no understanding that the violence and sexuality serve as absurd counterpoints to the banality of modern existence that Ellis is attempting to skewer.  There’s no appreciation of the pitch black caricature which is Patrick Bateman.  There’s just sex and torture and murder, explicitly described page after page after page.

American Psycho is an extreme example.  I’m pretty well read and I haven’t come across another book as abhorrent in its content.  That I can understand and appreciate some of its thematic elements and perverse humor, doesn’t mean its not a repulsive work.  I loathe censorship, but I would never want an adolescent exposed to Patrick Bateman’s homicidal and misogynistic rage.

All this being said, In the age of the internet, where the most depraved of human instincts are on full display only a few clicks away, is this really a problem?  I’m not so sure.  I spent my adolescence reading books beyond my maturity level and I seem to have turned out okay.  In fact, I’m certain that I’m a better person for it.

At the same time, I pause when I see a list of banned books that places works such as The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird alongside books such as American Psycho. There are people who genuinely believe that no book should be restricted in its availability and I sympathize.  I’m wholeheartedly opposed to censorship yet I’m certain there’s a very big distinction between books which have simply run afoul of some modern notion of political correctness and books which plunge headlong into the realm of pornography.  Can there be artistic merits in the latter?  Of course.  Should those books be readily available to young readers?  My instincts say no.

I’m not a parent.  I can’t say for certain how I would feel confronted with the possibility that my child might be exposed to material, be it a book or movie or otherwise, that I found objectionable.  Nor can I predict exactly how carefully I will monitor my children’s reading habits (when and if I eventually have any).  However, my sense is that both the hysterical “blame Hollywood” and the rigid anti-censorship crowds, while both genuinely concerned about their children’s wellbeing, are overreacting.  There must be a more common-sense approach which recognizes that kids are going to view material their parents find objectionable while not using this as an excuse to pretend that parents shouldn’t even try.  Banning books isn’t the answer, but neither is allowing children carte blanche to access material which they aren’t prepared for.

I realize that I’ve created a bit of a false dichotomy between two extremes.  Most parents struggle to navigate somewhere in between.  I know that my parents certainly did and I’m thankful for that.  It’s a difficult road, I’m sure, and I just hope that I will be able to do the same when my time comes around.

I’d love to hear from some parents who have had to confront this issue.  How do you deal with it?

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11 comments

  1. My parents never censored my reading. I honestly have no idea why not…I suspect it was because they were probably pretty naive about what types of subjects were covered in the books I was reading. I too read a good bit of horror along with the teenage standards…Judy Blume and the like…along with anything and everything else I could get my hands on…

    I do not censor what my children read. However, in all fairness, I haven’t really felt like I needed to. My oldest daughter reads anything and everything. My middle daughter has probably started and not finished more books than she has read all the way through in her life so far, so I try to stand back and let them find their way. Would I censor a book like the one you described, American Psycho (which I have not read)? I’m not sure. I think I might trust my children’s own reactions…my oldest daughter, as well read as she is, does not care for Ann Rice. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not comparing Interview with the Vampire to American Psycho…my point is that my daughter found something in Ann Rice disturbing, so she herself decided not to continue reading it. I think that a lot of children would do the same.

    Do I think parents have the right to make their own decisions about guiding their children through life. You bet. But, before censoring a book, they should at least read it themselves rather than go by someone else’s opinion.

    1. I completely agree with you that parents (or anyone, for that matter) should at least read a book before passing judgement. I just think back to how busy my parents were, especially my mother, trying to look after four kids. I’m not sure there were enough hours in the day for all that needed to be done on top of keeping up with what we were reading as well.
      You make a good point about letting the kids find their own way. Still, there are some books I’ve read that, when I think about the possibility of a child reading them, it gives me pause. American Psycho is an extreme example and not many books reach that level, but there are others as well. I’m not completely sure what I would do. As I said, I’m not a parent, so my ponderings are all hypothetical. I appreciate your response, thanks for coming by!

  2. As a parent of a child (10 on Monday) I’ve not had the need to any form of censorship, altho have been tempted with potters but that’s just taste 😉 & to do so would, I think be hypocritical as I read loads of suspect books including American Psycho when younger , I personally think my input would be advisory & allow her the freedom of her own judgement.
    Ps Bambi’s full of violence implied maybe, but caused many a sleepless night & tears .

    1. Congratulations on your child’s birthday! I agree, it would be hypocritical to censor a child’s reading when I spent my adolescence reading inappropriate material. I just wonder about where the line is drawn and why it’s drawn at books. Most parents, I think, would absolutely not let their children watch hard-core pornography on television or on the internet. What makes it different when it’s printed in a book? I’m years and years away from dealing with these issues in any practical way, but it still interests me in how my parents dealt with it and in how I might approach it when that time rolls around for me.

  3. I’ve got two sons (13 and 12) and they are reading what seems quite OK children’s books. I haven’t read many of them myself (although I’m sometimes tempted to check whether they are appropriate) but since the library puts them in the “children’s” section I just assume and hope they are OK for them.

    I would definitely take a book like American Psycho away from them and suggest they read it in ten years time or so. Ón the other hand, with books, you have to make your own picture (interpretation) to go with the text and so, explicit books are probably not as bad as explicit movies: what a child doesn’t know they won’t be able to picture in great detail. So they might not quite understand it in the same way as an adult would. What do you think?

    1. That’s a good point about a child not understanding many of the things an adult would and, thus, not being affected by it. However, I think by the time one reaches 12 or 13, they have probably been exposed to just enough to know what’s going on, but not enough to process it maturely. I don’t know, as I said I’m not at the stage where I have to deal with this. But, it is something that makes me think. Thanks for the comments!

  4. I suspect that the main reason is the greater vividness and emotional impact that a visual depiction has on most people. When I read Stephen King in my younger years, e.g., there were many things that I found scary, but nothing that compared to the first time I saw “Alien”. This even though I discovered him several years before I had the opportunity to watch “Alien”, and therefore was an easier target.

    As an aside, concerning 1: I feel very strongly that it is not the medium, but the content, that determines the usefulness of reading a book, watching tv, whatnot. If one person reads “Twilight” and another watches a good documentary or a psychologically insightful movie, then the latter is far better off.

    1. I completely agree with you that content should be the determining factor of worth for any medium. That’s why it puzzles me why movies and television are scrutinized by parents more carefully than are books. Books can easily surpass movies and television in their depictions of sex and violence, something that parents usually have no problem shielding their children from in visual media.
      As for movies having greater impact, I’m going to have to disagree with you on that one. Stephen King’s It terrified me as a child. Literally terrified me. No movie ever came close. It could be I was watching the wrong movies. I suppose that each child is different and that’s where it comes to the parents for determining what is appropriate or not. Thanks for commenting!

  5. I’m really lucky that my 13 year-old daughter is as voracious a reader as I am. We don’t seem to have the same taste in books though. When I’m pawing through classics and nonfiction at Barnes and Noble, she’s over in the YA section picking up anything with a vampire on it, or over in the anime section. I would crumble into dust if I had to read what she read cover to cover, so I always make sure to find a review of what she’s reading online to make sure it’s not too scary-sounding, and we always talk about what she’s reading in case she has questions.

  6. @ Socrmom78 – I suppose that daughters are probably different from sons in their reading habits. I have plenty of male friends who were reading Stephen King at 13 but not many female ones. I wonder about books that girls might be more inclined to read – romances and the such. I would imagine that many of those probably have scenes that most parents might find inappropriate for a young teenager. Thanks for coming by!

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