When my youngest daughter was in ninth grade, her aunt took her to a bookstore and told her she could pick out any book she wanted for herself. With so much to choose from, she was somewhat at a loss. She started browsing in the young adult fiction section, picking out a book, glancing at the cover, and opening it to read the first lines. I was present too. After a while, she brought me a book that she thought might be a little on the mature side and asked me if it was okay to get it.
I read the first chapter. It was highly imaginative and impressionistic and seemed to describe someone’s efforts to get rid of a dead body. In fact, I wanted to read it myself. I told her she could get it.
The book was The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis. It tells the story of two teenagers who become romantically involved during high school. The boy is a drug dealer and occasional gigolo, trying to raise his little sister on his own. The girl is a top student from a good home with caring parents. The book includes a graphic rape scene that I thought my daughter would find disturbing. She did, but we talked about it. If she had been a couple of years younger, I would probably not have approved her reading the book, despite its being beautifully written and compelling.
Parents have to walk a fine line when it comes to raising their children. On the one hand, they want them to grow and mature and take on increasing responsibilities. On the other, they want to protect them from unsafe situations and even unsafe ideas until they are old enough to deal with them. Few parents are so laissez faire that they let their children raise themselves, although I suppose it does happen, especially when parents are dealing with troubles of their own and can’t spare the time or attention for their kids. In my experience, however, the greater danger is overprotection, parents who are so careful to keep their children safe that they won’t allow them to experience the normal risks of adulthood with a safety net. This often leads to rebellion and conflict.
Knowing exactly when to allow your child to be exposed to adult ideas cannot be determined by a formula. Parents should be the ones making that determination for their own children; it is part of their responsibility as parents. That’s one of the reasons why school districts elect school board members—to represent the interests of the parents in keeping their children safe. Most schools provide some flexibility to accommodate parents who think their kids are too immature for certain ideas. Most teachers also work hard to make sure their assignments meet curriculum guidelines while remaining age appropriate. Occasionally a breakdown occurs where a parent thinks assigned books are too mature for their child or where a teacher assigns content that most parents think is too mature. When that happens, parents may call for a ban on certain books or for more oversight of the curriculum.
My own view is that banning books does nothing except boost sales. Many teens and pre-teens have at least some unsupervised access to Internet content that was once considered too mature for R-rated movies. Parents can no longer expect to restrict access to mature content the way they could 50 years ago. Why, then, should books be banned, particularly at a time when reading and understanding complex ideas is falling into disuse? Encourage your children to read. Discuss with them the ideas they find disturbing. You might learn something too.