Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Playground and The Library

When you take your kid to the playground, you expect it to be reasonably, but not entirely safe. Kids running around climbing things and chasing things is inherently risky, but we expect that there shouldn't be collapsing equipment, or boards with rusty nails sticking up. Parents titrate their supervision according to the age and general tendencies of their child. We hope – no, we expect – that at a certain age we can send our child barely supervised, then unsupervised.

There are lots of things that can go wrong at the playground. Kids break arms, they come in contact with other children who may not be good for them to be with. If your town has a pool and swimming lessons, the person teaching it may be terrible with children, or have some cockamamie idea about how swimming should be taught that just freaks your kid out. The town may develop rules for use of the playground that you don’t like, such as no pets, or not have rules you would like, such as no hitting.

Parents’ expectation for the playground have changed only a little over the years. In my childhood we were sent unsupervised at younger ages, and there were fewer people monitoring the physical environment; there is some difference in equipment and there are lots more signs because there have been lots more lawsuits. Beyond that, there’s not much change. Kids play. There were unreasonable parents who expected that their child should never get a scrape or hear a bad word while they were at the playground, just as there are now. We assume there are more of those parents now than then, but that's just an impression.

Parents expect something similar from the library. I walked to the library by myself most Saturdays starting at about age 8, and my mother was far more worried what I would be exposed to in the neighborhoods I walked through than what I would be exposed to at the library.

Before I explore how reasonable this expectation is, I have a tangent. Of the NYTimes, (via neoneocon) links to the research of Jonathan Haidt. One of his contentions is that conservatives have a more complicated set of measurements for morality, five scales instead of two. Haidt clearly thinks those 3 additional are extra and unnecessary, but the observation is at least some sort of progress. He identifies one of those dimensions as community rather than individual rights. I think he is wrong in that, perhaps even backwards in his estimation. One could certainly make the case that it is progressives who are currently pressing for group over individual values; it follows that this scale of morality is something they take into account as well. But I also think I see what Haidt is driving at with this categorization, and we meet that “community values” question here. It is not really a community rights versus individual rights question, though it has some similarities.

Conservatives want to live in a place where they can increase their children’s independence at what seems to them a normal pace. I think everyone realises, as folks did back in my day, that your 12-year-old might sneak over to the adult section of the library to look at sex books. For some children this would be a big joke, for some a serious excursion, and for most it would be both. This strikes most people as a non-problem. Not all people. I am sure there were parents who insisted to the librarians in the 1960’s that they should have kept a better eye on little Debbie when she went over into the 600 section.

A number of things have happened to change that dynamic. Because it's easier to measure damage to the body than damage to the mind in a lawsuit, libraries have to spend more time monitoring the physical environment. Librarians have become more liberal. People move around more, and a consensus of values is harder to achieve in any area. We are all more sensitive to the individual child who might be insulted or isolated by being outside of values taken for granted by others. (We are not so sensitive to whether we are harming children in the other direction, by exposing them to adult political propaganda, but that's the trade.)

Yet the idea remains. I want to go into the library and let my child pick out her own books. Not because it is a break for me, not because it is intrusive and embarrassing for me to scrutinize everything she touches (though both those things are also true), but because it is part of her development and independence. There are certainly parents who have unreasonable expectations on this point, and it is hard to know where to draw lines. But it is an entirely reasonable position for parents to say I don’t expect everything to be just my way. It’s a big world and my child might pick up a book that is scary. My child might pick up a book that deals with situations that I think are inappropriate. I can deal with that. What I do not expect to deal with are books of propaganda that are wildly inappropriate. That is what I pay for when I pay the town to have a library.

You can disagree with that position. You can understand it but think it impractical and outmoded. You can point out a dozen places where that value comes in conflict with other values. There are several things you really can’t do, however.

You can’t walk away as if the subject is closed, because there are return arguments that you have not heard. The bibliotherapy idea that we are rescuing some child from the pain of isolation by carrying Daddy’s Friend and Heather Has Two Mommies has no evidence to support it. (Those are not chosen randomly just because they are at the extreme of controversiality. Those were two It’s an adult fantasy that we are going to give children a transparent piece of propaganda in the form of a book about a child their own age and it will somehow make the world right for them. When books rescue, it is in an entirely different way. Keep that in mind about any challenged book. The parent says “I think this is harmful.” It's not just the ALA that says “no, we can imagine a way in which it might be helpful, even though we have no evidence.” Thinking about this post, I realised that I do it too. I changed my mind somewhat thinking about this post

Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is sometimes challenged because it includes the word nigger. I have always thought parents objecting to that book is ridiculous. It's literature, for crying out loud, it's Mark Twain. Yes, it includes the word nigger but that's part of the cultural context, and much of the point of the book is that Jim, who is supposed to be the ignorant slave, is the wisest one present.

Maybe so, but that's a rather complicated idea for a kid. An average fifteen-year-old could follow that, but could a ten-year-old? What guarantee do we have that the reading level is going to match the abstract-reasoning level? And can't all of us imagine some smartass kid (probably male) starting to use the word nigger, hiding behind the rationale that it's used in an assigned book? No, that's not reasonable, but children aren't reasonable. That's why they have adults around, theoretically.

Look, I'd still put Huck on the shelf, but I now realize I haven't got solid proof it's a good idea. The unreasonable parents have a better case than I thought - not because their ideas make any more sense, but because the arguments against them are weaker than I thought. People who are readers act on intuition quite a bit in this area. They have to, because how are you going to measure whether a book is beneficial or damaging? In the absence of definite knowledge, who gets to make the call?

Oh yeah, the second thing you can't do in the face of this argument? You can't call these parents evil or stupid, or even imply it. Because the book-saving argument isn't much stronger than the book-removing one. It feels stronger because Americans have a natural aversion to anything that is even second-cousin to censorship, but when you press the issue, there isn't good scientific data about what topics should be introduced and the method of presentation. We can hope that Judy Blume wasn't damaging, but we don't know the effect. We don't know it for even our most respected and beloved children's authors either. We hope we're right.


Anonymous said...

Judy Bloom is damaging. It may have been the book. It may have been the friend. But after reading one about first times and mother's respecting privacy etc., my fifteen-year-old with fetal alchohol effect (and yes, I did talk to her about the plot and it's fallacies, calmly, despite my inner rage at her 'friend' giving her the book) she ran off to a young man she met on the internet so she could find out what first times felt like. Yeah, she found out. And then she got to find out about being seriously sick and homeless and rape charges and police and hospital investigations and counseling and on and on.
Much worse that when she wanted to know what it felt like to drive even though she did not have a license. That one only cost a lot of money. This escapade cost, I don't know, it's still costing.
But I'm probably casting blame where I shouldn't. The real cause of my daughter's problems is her birthmother's drinking that damaged my daughter's brain so she could not make connections with cause and effect. But reading that Judy Blume book inflamed her imagination.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Wow. I am so sorry for your daughter. It brings up a question I hadn't even thought of: what if a book is okay for most children but not for all?

terri said...

"being good for most but not all"

Probably true. Not sure about Judy Blume. The ones I read in school were all age-appropriate, but I know that in the past 10-15 years she has moved from children's lit to teen/adult lit.

I read all kinds of things I would never let my kids read. I was reading adult(not pornographic)novels in 3rd grade...the same age as my oldest child.

They were my mom's paperback novels, and there was a lot of stuff an 8/9 year old shouldn't read in them.

On the other hand, I was born "old" and "sensible" and never really had a desire to do any wild or crazy things, so I skated through that without any lasting damage, but I could see how many other children wouldn't.

I would say that it's not just a single book that influences a person, but a steady diet of the same type of books that reinforce ideas.

My kids have much less literary freedom than I did....which makes me feel somewhat hypocritical.

Donna B. said...

I'm old, so maybe my experiences do not count.

I let my children read and view almost anything they wanted to. I found that it was more often visuals, not language, that I felt the need to censor.

Thus, no problem with them watching "A Few Good Men" at middle school age, whereas the movie "The Shining" was verboten, the book OK.

It is a matter of taste and judgment. What was fine for my children may not be so for others'.

One very fortunate advantage I had was that my children talked to me. A lot. I don't take any credit for that other than I was willing to listen. It never occurred to me to do anything to encourage them.

The youngest is now almost 28, and we still talk about almost everything. Sometimes I feel guilty posting about my children, because even my son who suffers still from a 20+ year old severe closed head injury is still a wonderful conversational sparring partner.

The only advice I might have is to let the child find their comfort zone, but guide them carefully if they will let you.