This is not my first draft of this post.
The first draft of this post was hundreds of words long, personal, and filled with the kind of honesty that maybe shouldn’t see the light of day. The original title was, “Banned Books: How Shame, Fear, and Disobedience Influenced My Childhood Reading.” As much as those initial words would make for a compelling blog post, like a juicy diary entry, I want to be sympathetic to persons other than myself.
I’m not a parent. I can’t even begin to fathom the responsibility of creating and raising a child in this crazy world. I have not experienced that root-deep instinct to protect and nurture. I can only come at this issue from the child’s perspective.
But I have a strong opinion, regardless, and it is that no book should be banned from children.
A big part of why parents ban books from their kids is legitimate fear — fear that kids will lose their innocence, fear that Satan will enter their little hearts, fear that they’ll pick up bad words or behaviors. All of those reasons are problematic, but understandable to me. But one motive behind banning books I find utterly intolerable, and it has to do with — brace yourself for a term — ideological cloning.
‘Ideological cloning’ is the idea that, not only do you pass your genetic material along to your kids, but you also must transfer your belief system to them as well. This is rampant absolutely everywhere, but it’s infamous in fundamentalist religious sects, like the Amish, who utilize techniques like shunning. But, you know, it is definitely not just the Amish who shun their youth for following different paths. All cultures, all belief systems, all people do this.
No sane parent wants to shun their child, or, to a lesser degree, to disapprove of their children’s chosen lifestyles. So, those who wish for their children to carry on their own beliefs will go to incredible lengths to prevent the idea of “straying” from ever entering their kid’s heads. This includes monitoring and banning all sorts of media, including literature. At what expense do they do so, however?
The Effects of Diverse Reading on the Young Mind
Make no doubt about it — literature has a huge impact on a developing mind. There are biological reasons behind this — the brain is astoundingly elastic, able to mold itself in response to internal and external changes in its environment. And at no time is the brain more elastic than in childhood. We all know this. We also know that education exercises the brain, raising intelligence and optimizing cerebral function. But what about the actual content of that education?
Science answers that question for us again. The more diverse information the brain takes in, the more unique connections are forged within our grey matter. This is why a large and varied vocabulary is such an important variable of a fat IQ. A high intelligence, despite having correlations to symptoms of depression and anxiety, drastically increases chances of being in good health, being altruistic, being highly educated, being happy in marriage, being satisfied with life, and more.
So that’s why it’s crucial to not just read to your kid from your heirloom copy of The Illustrated Bible, precious and safe as it may be. Read them Where The Wild Things Are, too. Also, The Mezuzah On the Door, I Have a Dream, and Islamic Stories. Read them books that you weren’t read. With such a rich education, your child’s mind will open like a blooming flower. They might learn something you’re uncomfortable or unfamiliar with, but this is about setting an educational precedent for the rest of your child’s life.
When Kids Surpass Their Parents
Most every parent wants their kid to have a better life — in some or many respects — than they, themselves, had. That’s a given. And intelligence should play a factor in this drive for improving the next generation, but in many belief systems, ‘knowledge,’ ‘curiosity,’ and ‘experience’ can be seen as negative things.
So this is where the question comes in: I get what you’re saying, but is it really so harmful to my kid’s intelligence to not read Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret?
Actually, it is that harmful. Because it’s not just a book you’re banning, but an entire concept — that of human sexuality — and that will lead to naiveté, confusion, misunderstanding, or even fear on the part of your child. It’s much less harmful for your kid to read that banned book, when you look at it from that perspective.
Now one might say, Okay, I get that my kids should learn about human sexuality. If I ever want grandchildren, my kid will have to reproduce. But wouldn’t it be better for them to learn about all that from a safe source, one vetted by me, one that isn’t so perverse?
By curating your child’s reading list in that manner, you run the risk of limiting their worldview to within the boundaries of your own ideology. And then they’ll only ever have as much wisdom as you.
So What’s the Right Thing to Do?
Give your kids a library card and let them read whatever they want. When they’re children, they’ll be reading from the children’s section, naturally. They’ll want to read stuff like Dear America, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Animorphs, and Eyewitness Books, and the Usborne catalogue. Along with their recreational reading, guide them towards diverse books of merit. Newberry winners and honor books are good places to start. You might also pluck a random book off of the shelf for a surprise.
And when they’re ready, they’ll start gravitating little by little to the Young Adult and Adult sections of the library. They’ll pick up some John Grisham, some J.R.R. Tolkein, some Stephen King, and maybe even (gulp) some Ayn Rand.
I can understand and imagine that this might be nerve-wracking, like watching your kid learn to walk and hoping they don’t fall and bonk their head. (Only instead of bonking their head, they’ll wind up thinking Ayn Rand is a genius.) But resist thinking that your kids are “too young” for certain books. If they willingly pick up the book and keep reading it, they are not too young.
On a Personal Note
I only hinted at this before, but I’ll say it bluntly now — I was raised and educated partially in social sphere that embraced the banning of books. I had to sneak to read the books that would have been taken away from me. The underside of my mattress was very heavily utilized in my youth, only instead of stereotypical filthy magazines, I hid Judy Blume and Meg Cabot books under there. Books mainly where characters explored sexuality (Blume and Cabot) and books that questioned religion (The Ramsay Scallop and A Proud Taste For Scarlet and Miniver)
On more than several occasions, I lent such books out to my friends, only to have it returned by their parents to my mother. In some situations my friends had gotten caught, and in other cases they had turned me in. There was one mom who thumbed through my copy of The Princess Diaries, saw the word “condom” and threw it out. One friend told me, about a story featuring a sassy and dead Eleanor of Aquitaine, “I don’t feel comfortable reading a book where they say that heaven is boring.”
To try to balance my thirst for sharing books with my friends’ growing religious resolve, I would black out ‘questionable’ parts of my favorite books with marker or circle page numbers, as a kind of warning or sanitization. Some friends laughed at me for this — “Ellen, you’re crazy.” Others returned the books solemnly — “I don’t think I should be reading this even though you marked up the bad parts. My mom could still read them through your pen.”
My own mother, God bless her, never really punished me for my curiosity (and generosity) regarding books when all of this inevitably got back to her. The most discipline I ever got was a light reprimand and the book taken away. My library card was never under fire though.
The Closing Argument
It’s not often that I make an argument. I’m the type of person who likes to see things from many different perspectives — my Meyers Briggs personality profile calls this ‘mediation.’ But on this topic, I’m unyielding. Kids should be able — should want — to read challenging, diverse books, free of recrimination.
It all comes down to wisdom. As much as ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ are seen as negative things in the religion I was brought up in, wisdom is something to be admired and sought after. Every belief system, even Atheism, agrees on this. Wisdom is a treasured human achievement.
Wisdom isn’t about not having strong beliefs. And it’s not even about being ‘right,’ necessarily. (Or being wizened with silver hair.) It’s about having informed opinions.
In order to become wise, one needs to learn — about everything. Some people do this under the covers with a flashlight. Others do it under fear of prosecution, imprisonment, or death.
Give your child a gift. Let them become wise freely.