6. Loosen your filter – preferably lose it altogether.
If you want your child to read and be a reader, then you absolutely have to relax and loosen (or even lose) your natural parental filter. Younger children love anything with bum, fart or poo jokes. Teenagers are fascinated by sex and other “taboo” subjects. Generally, they are also far less offended by strong language than you are. The point is, if they find something a little bit tantalising or naughty, it is a huge enticement to read it… the attraction of forbidden fruit. This is not to say that if you really feel uncomfortable about a book that you should swallow your concerns and let your child read it – perhaps you should have a discussion with them first or wait a few years until they are older. But in my experience, children are the best self-regulators with appropriateness of material and if they feel something is inappropriate they will tell you.
As a teacher-librarian, I feel very strongly about the concept of censorship. I am not a supporter and believe strongly in the freedom to read. Much of my own education about life’s less traditional education matters came from books. Questions I was too timid to ask were answered by books, and my teenage curiosity about members of the opposite sex (and the act itself) was often satisfied by some well-read passages in my adolescent years.
I have a challenged materials policy in my library. Essentially it is a questionnaire I have developed for parents when they “challenge” a book in the collection. (Incidentally, I have not yet had to use the questionnaire). One important question on the form is: “have you read the entire book?” The reason for this is that children’s and young adult literature is normally extremely responsible and highly moralistic. If sensitive topics like drugs, sex, and suicide are included in a work, it is always necessary to read the entire book to gain a full understanding of how those topics are dealt with and resolved. Usually this is with a great deal of insight and sensitivity, and the young reader has the opportunity to critically reflect upon the lessons learned by the characters in the book.
An example of this which occurred recently concerned a young adult book called In the bag. This book is about a couple of boys who discover a car wreck and a bag full of cash. The first few chapters include a certain amount of swearing, as well as references to alcohol and drug use. A parent of a boy in Year 7 voiced her concerns to me about this, and whilst she wasn’t complaining or challenging the book, I still asked her if she had read the book in its entirety. She hadn’t and decided to go ahead and do so. I then read the book as well. What struck me was the book was primarily about the value of honesty as the boys involved struggled with their guilt and the moral aspects of their actions. The early swearing and drug and alcohol references were totally acceptable in developing the characters and their socio-economic standing which was all integral to the plot. The book is an excellent example of young adult fiction which will hook young readers, get them reading and have them critically reflect as they do so.
I think it’s fairly safe to say that in the modern world, children of all ages are exposed to a great deal of material which would be considered unacceptable, usually through the mainstream media. Very young children are exposed to quite horrific images on the evening news; older children see movies and television shows with gratuitous violence and explicit sex. Swearing is increasingly common in society and in the media, with comedians especially making prolific use of swear words. Video games can be the most unacceptable and gratuitous of all. In comparison, I believe most books are fairly reasonable in terms of their content. Young adult fiction in particular deals with all of the abovementioned topics in a measured and carful manner, and always with a powerful message. I would much prefer my children to begin their exposure to adult themes in the safety of the printed word. In addition, it must be remembered that whilst pondering the sex scene, wading through the swear words and contemplating drug or alcohol use, your child is reading! Your child is developing all those wonderful skills that come from engaging with the printed word, above all, critical literacy.
So loosen your filters and realise that the benefits of reading far outweigh the odd swear word or fart joke.
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