Safe Experience: A Parent’s Thoughts on Censorship

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“Only the foolish learn from experience — the wise learn from the experience of others.”

~Romanian Proverb

It was hard to decide where to begin once I committed myself to another Banned Books Week post. My other one served me well; I felt like it showed a good balance between both sides of the censorship issue.

Haha — the only trouble is that I’ll be the first to tell you there are hardly ever only two sides to anything. Issues are complex. There’s always more to explore.

Simpsons vs. Jetsons

Take, for example, an episode that aired several reruns at our house. Hubby grew up loving The Simpsons; I grew up with a dad who discouraged us from watching it, on the grounds that it showed inappropriate behavior. I’ve come to appreciate the show for its literary allusions, but I still felt our kids weren’t old enough to watch it (our oldest is six). Whenever I would catch Hubby turning on The Simpsons while the boys were in the room, I griped, “Please! Please change it to something else! Find Cartoon Network. Turn on The Jetsons or The Flitstones — something that’s meant for kids!”

After months of this, I finally confronted Hubby when the kids were in bed. I was angry that he ignored my requests and horrified that he wasn’t concerned about the kids’ exposure to mature content.

“Have you seen The Jetsons recently?” he asked.

The question stopped me. “What do you mean?”

“I tried what you suggested. We watched Jetsons for a while, and I was totally disgusted by the way they show women. I don’t want my boys growing up thinking that women are only good for shopping and cleaning. But with The Simpsons, at least I know every episode and I don’t show them the bad ones.”

Now, with Hubby it’s completely possible that he was just messing with me. The combination of him being good at lying and me being too gullible sometimes lets him get away with too much. But in this case, he’d given me a revelation.

There’s more to media than the obvious violence, swearing, crudity, etc, that impacts the rating. There’s the underlying issue of the worldview the media portrays. The Jetsons premiered in 1962; it sort of can’t help portraying mentalities from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s about gender roles and consumerism, etc. I think Hubby’s right: we don’t want to pass those on to our kids. And letting them watch those kind of shows might reinforce that antiquated worldview, dangerously setting it into their subconscious as “normal.”

On the other hand, history is full of sexism portrayed through the media of the time period, whether in Shakespeare or Dickens or sitcoms like I Love Lucy. So to label The Jetsons as bad simply because it reflects the culture of the time doesn’t seem right. However, I like the point that we need to consider more than just the obvious when it comes to the influences on our children.

(Whether or not this exonerates The Simpsons and sanctions it for young viewers . . . well, it’s one of those cases where I’m choosing to lay down my sword and give up on that battle for now.)

Cruella vs. Woody

What I’m trying to say so far is that it’s complicated. It’s not easy to label any media, even media specifically designed for children, as good or bad, harmful or benign.

Think about Disney.

I’m not talking about what shows up when you freeze-frame certain scenes. I’m talking about something much simpler: when my oldest kid started using the word “idiot” at age three or four.

“That’s not a very nice word,” I told him. “Where did you hear that?”

“Dalmatians,” he said.

“Oh. Well, Cruella isn’t a very nice person. She doesn’t say very nice things. We don’t want to be like her, do we?”

He shook his head, and I felt all proud of myself for handling a “teaching moment” so well.

Then he asked, “But what about Woody?”

“Huh?”

“Woody says ‘idiot’ too. He calls Buzz idiot.”

I had to stop and think how to explain.

“Sometimes even good people mess up and say things that aren’t nice. It’s just not a nice word. I don’t want you to call yourself an idiot or call anybody else an idiot, okay?”

“Okay.”

That teaching moment might have been more for me than for him. This was before our Simpsons vs Jetsons episodes, before I’d had really any experience at all with my kids encountering “bad” content. It taught me the simple lesson that I can’t shield them from everything, but I can discuss it with them and help them put it into context.

My oldest quit using the word “idiot” thanks to that quick chat. Now years later he still sometimes reports to me about what he’s seen in terms like, “Last night, on Simpsons, Bart hit Lisa, and that wasn’t very nice, so we don’t want to do that.” He can evaluate media and he can discuss it with us, and I think those habits/skills are far more valuable than protecting his innocence with an all-out ban.

Uncomfortable vs. Safe

What this finally brings me to is the idea that maybe it’s actually good for our kids (and us) to encounter certain harsh truths through media. I would much rather my six-year-old learn that it’s bad to hit your siblings by extrapolating that from TV than by hitting his four-year-old brother and learning from the resulting time-out.

In some ways, isn’t that the point of stories, whether told out loud or in books or as TV shows or movies? To make us wiser by helping us learn from others’ experience rather than having to learn everything “the hard way”?

Last summer I wrote about it in regards to experiencing death in a post called “Killing off Characters,” saying,

Maybe we need to contemplate death through fiction . . . because it helps us reconcile one of the most frightening parts of our existence. Fiction is a fantastic place to wrestle with questions about life, and so it’s probably also an appropriate place to wrestle with questions about death.

For example, in Shannon Hale’s Actor and the Housewife, there’s a death that made me cry for a solid hour. . . . Even though it was a wretched hour of heavy tears, I was grateful for the opportunity to go through it in fiction, to see the main character survive, and to think to myself that I could survive it, too, if I had to.

I think a lot of us can agree that we’d rather go through something horrible in fiction than in real life. I think we can probably even agree that fiction prepares us to better handle hard things in life. And maybe that even applies to the content we might at first be inclined to censor.

In the post that I republished on Monday, my friend Leisha and I conversed about this idea in the comments:

A couple of years ago I went to a school book fair and tried to buy a copy of the Hunger Games. The attendants ran over to me when I picked it up off the shelf and whispered, “Do you know what that book is about?” I stared back and told them yes. They then asked if I still wanted to buy it because there was nudity in it. And violence. And death. And kids killing kids. I just stared some more before grinning and saying, “Heck yeah! I love a good dystopian. Bring on the body count.”

It’s such a strange thing, isn’t it? Because when you list it out like that — nudity, violence, death, kids killing kids — it sounds horrifying. Well, it is horrifying, actually. But horrifying is THE POINT. I think of dystopian fiction as a warning of what-might-happen-IF… Plus I think fiction is the place for us to deal safely with horrific things, to experience death and decide how we might cope, even if we only think about it on a subconscious level. (Whoa, sorry to go all literary theory on you.)

I know! I spent a lot of time thinking about what led that society to that point, and through the safety of the story I was willing to ponder on what could happen to ours IF things went awry. Stories deal with uncomfortable issues in a safe environment, it’s an emotional workout that lets me measure and even strengthen my moral codes. They allow speculation and experiences in situations I’d never dare to seek out in real life because I’m not fond of dying or pain, but I will face it in a book and emerge a better person for facing it. And I don’t want anyone telling me what I can and can’t face. I reserve that right for myself. I will decide what is my limit.

On the one hand, you could argue that Leisha reading The Hunger Games as an adult is completely different than having that book be geared toward teens. But I argue that most teens can handle it and that they need to. They need books that allow them to encounter those gruesome experiences precisely because we don’t want them to have to experience any of that firsthand. The lessons of war, etc, are sobering lessons that I want my kids to understand without having to go to war.

And I’m hoping that by the time my kids are teenagers, they’ll be prepared to decide for themselves, like Leisha, whether or not a book such as The Hunger Games is a good idea for them.

Uncomfortable versus safe? Hubby’s not comfortable with Jetsons, I’m not comfortable with Simpsons; but at least in either case our kids are learning that it’s safe to talk to us about media, just like I feel it’s safe to encounter tough issues in a book or movie, to grapple with experience of all levels in a place where we have the distance to evaluate it and decide how to apply it to ourselves.

Rather than having anyone censor books for me or my kids, I’d rather make those decisions for ourselves. Sure, right now I’m trying to shelter our kids a little, questioning everything from Disney to Simpsons to whether or not they’re old enough for Harry Potter. But gradually I’m turning the decisions over to them as we discuss the issues and they become better at recognizing the “good” and “bad.” They’ll get to be the ones to decide what they’re ready for.

It is a strange thing, I know, to say that I hope my kids will someday choose to read books about horrifying things when they’re ready. I hope they’ll read about ideas that are uncomfortable, that challenge their worldviews. I want them to be evaluative readers who weigh consequences and consider applications to their own lives.

I want my children to be wise.

What do you think? How do you look at censorship from a parenting viewpoint?

Leave a comment!

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9 responses »

  1. Perfect post for me today. 🙂 Justin came home and asked me if I’d like a certain movie he’d left the kids watching today and having only been around for the last 5-10 minutes of it I said “I didn’t like, they used words like idiotic. It seemed inappropriate.” And he looked at me strangely, thought I was mistaken, and informed me that it was a really good movie, it had a really good theme. On the way home from the mall tonight, a car was backing out and not paying attention to us and I yelled “Oh my gosh!” and Sadie yelled “stupid car!” hahaha. I said “Sadie, did you jsut say “stupid car”?” And she responded perfectly happily. “I should say nice things.” Haha. Apparently I should evaluate my own actions before worrying about a movie that says “idiotic” in it.

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    • Haha, I love it! That is so true. In the part about Woody saying idiot I wanted to add how Mom and Dad sometimes make mistakes too. I liked having that chance to tell our kids that people can be good and still say wrong things, etc. It’s good for them to learn that while they’re young.

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  2. I really loved the insight in this article last week and wanted to comment but couldn’t think of anything clever. So… “Thank you for this article,” is all I have to say. ;_;

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  3. Wow, this is quite good. If you don’t mind I think I will use it in my ch lit course when I teach it again. I really appreciate how you work through the complexities of the issues in a friendly intimate way.

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  4. Pingback: Why don’t they make Dora t-shirts for boys? « Mummy & Engineer

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