Safe Experience: A Parent’s Thoughts on Censorship

“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?”


“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?”


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?

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How Sit Coms (and Other Stories) Foster Maturity

As I admitted to my students last night, television is dangerous for me because I love to analyze. If I were in charge of the remote (which I’m not, because we prescribe to the traditional gender role of Hubby as Commander-in-Chief of the Controller), I wouldn’t even skip the commercials. I’d watch every one, fascinated by the rhetoric they use.

But funny enough I never turn on the TV on my own, so the only time I watch it (sans commercials, thanks to DVR) is when Hubby suggests we relax for a half hour when I get home from teaching at night. Often that half hour gets filled with either 30 Rock or Modern Family.

This week’s Modern Family was a rerun, Hubby tells me, but was one I hadn’t seen before. The gay couple, Mitchell and Cam, are having trouble because Mitchell doesn’t know how to tell Cam that his bike shorts look disgusting, so Mitchell talks his sister Claire into doing the dirty deed for him:

While I don’t wear bike shorts myself, I had a couple of uncomfortable moments during the episode: you know, those moments of “Uh oh — I do that . . . and they’re making fun of it.” Sort of like the moments many of us experienced during middle school/junior high that made us forever fear sixth-through-eighth grade and respond with incredulity when we meet someone who teaches that level (“You mean chose to go back to middle school?”). And of course my brain starting spinning around wondering what it all means.

One moment was where Mitchell and Claire are talking and Mitchell says something along the lines of “OMG! You’ve never heard of _______?” And Claire responds, “I hate it when you do that and act all astounded that I haven’t heard of whatever latest thing you just learned about yesterday and pretend you’ve known your whole life!”

Even while I was laughing, I was analyzing why I was laughing: because it’s so true. Isn’t that why sit coms are funny? It’s because we can relate to them, either because we know someone like that or because *gulp* we’re like that ourselves.

There’s a second of denial, where you tell yourself, “But I’m not that bad.” Then there’s a second of panic where you think, “Am I?”

The other moment was after the bike shorts confrontation. Cam rants to Mitchell about how Claire doesn’t have room to talk because such-and-such is wrong with her. And I could see myself all the sudden, ranting to Hubby about some upset. And I could see how ridiculous it was.

Yeah, by the end of the episode I’d sworn off both habits. Yesterday when Hubby brought up something that might have upset me a few days ago, I shrugged and said, “Not that big a deal. I can understand where she’s coming from.”

Oh, the maturity! Why did it take a sit com to shove me that direction, like pushing a reluctant child to say sorry? And why do we go back to sit coms weekly when the very mention of middle school makes us cringe?

Well, here’s my theory: this is what stories are for — to help us see our lives more objectively. In middle school, we were smack in the middle of the situations. In a story, we’re watching from the outside.

It’s sort of like when you want to get through to your kids. Sure, you could lecture directly and tell them exactly what they did wrong. I try this too often and can say it doesn’t work so well. But what about when you tell them a story about themselves, like “So there was this six-year-old boy who . . .”? They are generally 100% aware that you mean them*, and yet they listen with fascination because you’re giving them the opportunity to see themselves from the outside.

Just a thought.

What do you think? Learned any great life lessons from a story recently? Been shuddering ever since I said “middle school”?

Leave a comment!

*(unless you’re Claire using a soap-opera analogy to convince your daughter to break up with her boyfriend and the daughter thinks you’re talking about your husband instead, as in the sniffles episode a month ago)

TV Shows and Alternating POVs

Jack has fallen in love with two women and has to choose between them. Liz has revisited every past boyfriend and decided she might as well settle for the guy she can’t stand because fate keeps throwing him in front of her. And Kenneth has been told he can’t turn down a promotion that will send him to L.A.

Those were the plotlines for the season finale of 30 Rock last week, which was hilarious — and which got me thinking about plotlines.

Admittedly, I don’t watch enough TV to really know how typical this is, but the few shows I have gotten into the past few years (The West Wing, The Office, 30 Rock) all do this the same way: they divide the episode into roughly three plotlines following three different sets of characters, and they alternate scenes between those plotlines until they’re all resolved.

And it seems so normal for TV shows to do it that way that I hadn’t even thought much about it until now.

So what I wonder is . . . why is it so normal for TV shows but much less the norm in novels, which (at least in YA fiction) seem to tend toward single viewpoint?

I wonder about this question especially because I’m writing a novel with alternating viewpoints and I’ve heard comments from readers who say they can’t stand the format. They want to be firmly set in one character’s head.

Why is that? Do they feel the same way about TV shows? Would they have complained about Liz’s and Kenneth’s plotlines last week and demanded to see the episode only from Jack’s point of view? Think how much we would have missed out on, like the Somali pirate groomsman or Matt Damon as Liz’s pilot/destiny.

Does it all just come down to conventions? We’re used to TV being that way, and some readers are more used to strict single-POV books? Is it a difference in audio/visual material versus text-only, where because we don’t have the faces and voices of Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey to tell us immediately whose plotline we’re glimpsing now, we might end up feeling confused by the words on the page?

Just something I’ve wondered about.

For me, I feel like the viewpoint(s) a story is told from should fit the story. Multi-POV fits well with large-cast sitcoms like 30 Rock but also dramas like West Wing with multiple main characters. It’s also fit some of my favorite books like Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen of Attolia and King of Attolia, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Laini Taylor’s Dreamdark series, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Maggie Stiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls series, David Wroblewski’s Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, etc.

But then I can think of plenty of novels I’ve loved that made more sense from a single viewpoint, like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Jacqueline Kelly’s Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, M. T. Anderson’s Feed and Octavian Nothing

So as much as I love multiple POV, I try to go with the flow and see how the format matches the story.

Any insights? Do you have a preference for single or multiple viewpoints? What favorites do you have of either type?

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