Thursday, November 5, 2009

Something I've been wondering about...

I had lunch with a friend the other day, and as often happens when we get together, the conversation turned to books. She's in a book group with women from her neighborhood, and one woman happened to mention that her 12-year-old daughter had expressed a desire to read Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella, which her mother had recently read and enjoyed. I have not read that book, but I've heard it's clever and funny, and at some point I'd like to check it out.

The woman was concerned about the swear words that are in the book, so she decided that she would let her daughter read it, but only after she inked out all the bad words with a black marker.

What do you think of that? Is that a reasonable compromise?

I keep thinking about it. I have to say that while I understand the woman's desire to protect her daughter from crude, objectionable language, it seems that if the mother thinks she isn't old enough to handle the language, maybe she's not old enough for that book yet. I also have to laugh, thinking that if my mom had done that when I was twelve, I'd have run straight to the library to see exactly what all those blacked-out words were!

A discussion between this parent and child about unacceptable language and why the parent believes it is not a good idea for her daughter to use those words might be more productive than expurgating the text. The child may well be familiar with many or most of those words already - so instead of sidestepping this issue, confronting it together might enable the child to ask questions and get straight answers, not to mention establish some trust. If a child feels comfortable talking with her parents about things her family disapproves of, she might be more likely to come to them later with other difficult questions.

So anyway, I've been thinking about that for a while, and I'm wondering if anyone else is as startled to hear of this expurgation strategy as I was. Any thoughts on the matter?


  1. Well, it's the mother's perogative. It's her choice and decision of how she is parenting. When I went to grade school all the bad words in my school library and public libary were all blacked out with magic marker. So I had nowhere to run to find out the real words unless I was going to buy the book myself.

    Personally, I think the mother should make a choice as to whether to let the child read the book or not (without altering it) but it's her choice, not mine.

    I think there is nothing wrong with a parent censoring books for their *own* children in any way they are comfortable with.

    Yes, having the discussions you talk about are fine and very much worthwhile (and perhaps they have already had them) but one doesn't need to wallow in the ugliness one disapproves of to make the point.

    My view will be unpopular, I'm sure :-)

  2. My first reaction? AHHHH marking up a book!!! WRONG! SIN! GAH!

    As far as reading bad words... you're going to hear them outside on the street or in school or wherever. Taking them out of a book, well, I think that perhaps you shouldn't let the child read the book then if you don't think all of it is appropriate. It doesn't make sense to me.

    Talking to your child about what is wrong and why it is wrong is another way to deal with things. Like "Yes, Character A says this bad word, but it is not a word that you should use. It is considered impolite in public.." or something. I'm not a parent, but I still don't think that you should censor too much from a child as they get older. Too sheltered isn't great either. (And I say that from experience here).

  3. You can't hide the world from your kids. Talking always beats hiding or ignoring.

  4. How is not reading swear words at age 12 hiding or ignoring the world?

    I didn't let me oldest son read books with bad language until he was a teenager. We don't swear in our house and we also ask anyone who comes into our home to refrain from doing so if they do. My son knew we didn't accept bad language , we talked about it, but we didn't read it together or speak it, and when he was a teenager he said new friends would always comment on how they noticed he never swore and never in a bad way.

    Once I did allow my son to read books with bad language (as a teenager) he would sometimes not read a book because it had too many f-words in it or because people were doing drugs etc. His choice.

    We don't need to join the world if we don't like what it is doing. It's not hiding or ignoring, it's consciously choosing not to join the ugliness.

    Sorry, Darla, I'll be quiet now.

  5. I did read this book and I admit that I didn't enjoy it. I didn't find it funny. My daughter loved the movie and my sister loved the book. That said, if the mother felt so strongly she just should have told her daughter no or later when the language is more appropriate. I tell my daughter that a fair bit regarding the vampire books that she wants to read. Far too sexy. She then says, aw mom, but I have already read far worse. she's 13. I suspect that the daughter has read much worse already and probably even used most of the words on the playground.

  6. My mother handed me my first "adult book" in middle school -- Marjorie Morningstar, by Herman Wouk. It had been her first grown-up book and thought it should be mine, too.

    It's a tame story, as far as books go, but I am forever grateful she trusted me enough, with this gentle introduction, to move toward adult reads.

  7. I have to say, my parents were really strict when I was young but they never said a word about what I read. I think a large part of that is that my parents are both not really readers, so they weren't about to read what I was reading just to see what it contained. I probably read a lot of stuff that I wasn't supposed to really, but I turned out fine. :)

    I suppose it is the parents choice on the whole censoring thing. I still will not swear around my parents because we were raised to not do that! In the end, though, I think it is more important that parents talk about things instead of just taking things away. If there is no explanation it just makes the children curious and that is much worse than reading the swear words in the first place. That's my opinion anyways. I'm not a parent...

  8. Thanks for your thoughts, everyone! I admit, it is fun to get feedback on things like these.

    Nicola - I agree absolutely that it is a parent's choice, and that there are as many parenting styles as there are parents. Yet for some reason it just doesn't feel right to me to do that - and I guess that's because I approach things in a different way with my own kids - not better or more correct, just different. The librarian in me finds it a bit shocking that that both your school and public libraries blacked out words in their books - expurgation is a violation of copyright law - even when they put stickers over "objectionable" parts of illustrations (I believe there was a lawsuit about that over Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen. In any case, never apologize for voicing your opinion on my blog - I always welcome input! :-)

    Cat - Me, too - the thought of doing that to a book makes me sad. One approach I've used with my kids - but with movies - is that yes, certain words are inappropriate to use, and if I hear them repeating any of those words we hear in movies, they will be stuck watching only G movies for a long, long time. Seems to work! Although it was so funny - our dog had a stomach upset and threw up all over the place repeatedly one night while I was at work. When I got home and was tucking the girls in bed, my 10yo gave me a verbatim repeat of all the words my husband had used upon discovering the umpteenth pile of barf (by stepping in it, I believe). They were pretty tame words, but since he rarely uses that language in front of them it sure stuck in their minds! Maybe I should get the black marker out and use it on him...

    Sean - I agree that they are going to hear those words sooner or later, and my personal approach would certainly be to talk about it.

    Heather - My oldest daughter is 10, so we'll be facing the same issue before we know it. I'm glad I read so many children's books so I am aware of the content as well as the language. I pretty much read whatever interested me without any interference from my parents, but I have to say that I could have done without picking up Animal Farm when I was nine or ten - talk about scarred for life! I thought it was going to be a sweet animal story. :-p

    Caroline - I love that story about your first adult book! What a wonderful tradition. I didn't always know as a child what was a kids' book and what was an adult book - unless, of course, I was in the library. I'd just pick books up off my parents' shelves. I do remember my mother gently taking The Valley of the Dolls out of my hands when I'd picked it up - I thought it was a doll story, but she told me firmly that it wasn't, thank goodness. Too bad she didn't know I was reading Animal Farm until it was too late (see previous comment). On the bright side I read through all her old Bobbsy Twins, Nancy Drew, Five Little Peppers and Jane Eyre and had a great time.

    Kailana - I do agree that it is definitely the parents' choice - and I wouldn't have it any other way. I would get upset, though, if that parent wanted to black out all the objectionable words in the school library books, effectively making that parenting decision for other parents. But that's a whole other can of worms! :-)

  9. "A discussion between this parent and child about unacceptable language and why the parent believes it is not a good idea for her daughter to use those words might be more productive than expurgating the text."

    I agree. It always surprises me when parents think they can completely shelter their children from swear words (or whatever else they find unpleasant about life) and will never have to discuss it.

    Having said that, up to a certain age it's her call.

  10. Oh, yes, I think blacked out words would be tantalizing to me if I were a child, too.

    I think more communication is always better than less. Chances are, the child has already been exposed to those words and so this becomes a teaching moment.

  11. I can't believe she went to so much trouble - and seriously, if she thinks her twelve-year-old doesn't know the words she's blacking out, she is sorely mistaken. She's obviously free to parent her child in whatever manner she wants, but this seems silly to me.

  12. Personally, the thought of marking up a book makes me cringe.

    It seems like a bizarre compromise to me. I would rather either forbid my child from reading the book altogether (which might also send him to the library) or leave the text alone and discuss the book with him. Both seem more sensible solutions to me.

    However, as other commenters have said, it is her perogative to guide her own child's reading in the manner she choses.

    All the same, that doesn't mean we can't use the example to examine our own thoughts on what we have done or (as in my case) think we will do when our children reach such an age.

    I can see myself reading books I wouldn't otherwise be interested in reading, but I'm a parent and at this point (haven't been tested yet as my son is only five) my feeling is that it is my job to help him transition to older books by being ready to discuss them with his as and when required. Even if that means I have to read the books too.

  13. My folks allowed me to read whatever I wanted provided that my reading choices included a lot of variety. The idea was that by reading a lot of different points of view forced me to think about them and draw my on conclusions.

    As to obscenities, my girls know that they are not supposed to use the words they hear when I hit my thumb with the hammer but I'd be foolish to think that I could prevent their exposure to such words or even keep them from using them if they choose to. That said, our message is that there is a time and a place for such words and the best way to learn this is to start by learning to communicate without using obscenities. Some books and movies are worthwhile despite their objectionable content and our role as parents is to read/watch it with them and openly discuss the pros and cons.

    The bottom line is that I believe censoring a book suggests that you don't think the child has the wisdom to make the right choices.

  14. I think if the mother doesn't think she's old enough to read the book as it is, unblemished, then she shouldn't let her read the book yet. (Though my mother would have had a hard time stopping me from reading what I wanted to at that age. LOL) I think it all comes down to the maturity of the child. If I thought my daughter could handle the book and wouldn't start inserting such words into her everyday vocabulary, I'd let her read it.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  15. Nymeth - I feel the same way. :-)

    Carolyn - I agree. I think that when I try to look at things as teaching moments, I'm better able to detach myself from the situation, whatever it is, be more objective, and have some useful conversation. Ideally, that is!

    Jenny - Yes - that's one of the reasons I think my mind kept dwelling on it. What a lot of trouble to go to! It would never have occurred to me in a million years to do such a thing.

    Kerry - I agree - I enjoy conversations about these things because it gives me other points of view, and writing about it helps me understand how I feel, and how I might plan to handle things when the time comes.

    Unkletom - I like your parents' approach! Variety is a good thing, and it is helpful be be exposed to many different points of view.

    Anna - I agree! :-)

  16. I do find it somewhat amusing and sad when some parents believe they can shelter their children completely from certain things. Children hear these words at school all the time, whether they admit it or not. Yes it is the parents choice whether to allow their children to be exposed to certain films or books in a home environment. But, it is human nature to want what you cannot have, what has been forbidden. So surely it is best to expose children to certain things in the right way. Perhaps talking to the child about the language before allowing them to read the book?

    Somewhat similarly, I have a real problem with peoples attitude towards alcohol in Britain. The more children are denied it, the more they go out and binge drink as soon as they get to uni. Yes that is a little generalised, but you see my point? On the European continent, children are allowed wine here or there at home, thus it never has that illicit appeal. I feel the same way about adult material in books or films. I remember when I was banned from seeing Dirty Dancing...I just went to a friends house and watched it. It is our nature to rebel, even when well-behaved and well-adjusted (whatever that means in society!).

  17. Mariel - Great points. That is funny about Dirty Dancing! And yes, it's too bad about the whole alcohol thing. When I lived it Italy I was amazed (going there for the first time when I was 19, I think) at how mature and responsible my Italian friends were about alcohol use. I learned a whole lot from them, and I think it influenced my attitude (in a positive way) when I returned to the U.S. for my senior year of college. I'm trying to cultivate that same attitude in my own children, but we'll see how that goes, surrounded as they will be by a cultural propensity towards alcoholic excess.

  18. I do think that being open with children about this kind of thing is very important, so good luck with it!

    You went to university in Italy? I am very envious. I absolutely adore Florence and would loved to have studied history or literature there. Where/what did you study? :)

  19. Mariel - I studied at the University of Bologna for a year as an exchange student, and it was amazing. I loved it so much that I moved back to Italy after I graduated from college, and spent a few more years there! Florence was only 45 minutes away by train, and I used to go for day trips when I could - it is lovely, isn't it?

  20. I agree. If the mother does not think she can handle the curse words, then she shouldn't let her read the book. However, with frank discussion about the words and why they should not be used, maybe her child is old enough to read it with some guidance.

    I would have run to the library as well to see what those blacked out words were.

  21. Serena - Glad I'm not the only one! :-)

  22. My reaction? HAHAHAHAHA! Sorry, but to me, it was a total "lol" momment. Here's why:

    For one thing, I'm 13 and I play volleyball. Let me tell you, it's a very frustrating sport and I find myself making many mistakes still, even after 4 years of it. More often than not, I get very agrivated when I shank a ball or miss a serve. When I do, you will most likely hear me cuss a little under my breath. It's never anything too bad, but it has become a habbit.

    Number 2: I know 12, 13, even 10 year olds at my school who have dirtier mouths than my parents. Ha, and I go to a Catholic school.

    Hmmm. My parents. Ha, make that my mom in particular. Usually the first thing I hear when I wake up in the morning is some colorful vocabulary directed at our dog who either jumped on her or ate a zipper off a sweatshirt. My mom doesn't really care. She got it from her parents. My dad isn't so great about it either. If I started on of those "Dime every Time" jars, I'd have enough money for college and some left over to buy a Ferrari. That would be from the words I'm around to hear, not to mention the ones uttered when I'm at school.

    I hope I've explained my initial reaction. You must understand that while I don't have a problem with swearing, I still think of it as a bad habbit. I also try to refrain from cussing (off the volleyball court). I also do not believe it's a good thing to try to totally censor your child's life. Most likely that will result with he/she getting the info elsewhere, aka his/her friends. That is NEVER good, trust me. Your child will probably just develope an even worse potty mouth than he/she would have if you hadn't censored all the books and acted like there was no such thing as bad words.

  23. Chanel - Thanks for weighing in on the issue - I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the matter!


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