Some thoughts on paying attention to what your kids read

Judy Blume recently spoke at the Hay Festival, and one of the things she said was that parents need to be less worried about what their kids are reading. I’ve been thinking about her comments for a little while now and need to write out my thoughts to figure out what I actually think.

She said,

A lot of people worry much too much about what their children are reading,”

“A lot of people will want to control everything in their children’s lives, or everything in other people’s children’s lives.

“If a child picks up a book and reads something she has a question about, if she can go to her parents, great.

“Or else they will read right over it. It won’t mean a thing.

“They are very good, I think, at monitoring what makes them feel uncomfortable. If something makes them feel uncomfortable they will put it down.

Now, I like Judy Blume alright, and the way this is phrased it sounds like something might have been cut out- I don’t have the original reference- but I think she’s missing something huge here. In the situation of a child reading something questionable (usually sexual, if we’re using Judy Blume’s books as the reference point), the two options that she lays out are, 1. The child asks their parents about it or 2. It goes over their heads. It would be nice if those were the only two options, but I can tell you from experience that they’re not.

I started reading at a very young age. By the time I was in kindergarten, I was inhaling books faster than my mom could keep track of them. I would literally come home from the library once a week with as many books as I could carry, and by the time I was in 2nd or 3rd grade I was reading long books far faster than my mom could have read them if she wanted to pre-read them. I’ve always read far above my grade level, and some of the time that meant that I was reading things that I had no context for even though I could understand words.

I don’t remember talking to my parents about the books I was reading, not because I felt uncomfortable doing so, but because I just went through them so quickly, and because they were my space. Books weren’t things I really talked about with other people. Imaginative play at recess or with my siblings might have been inspired by the books I read, but I didn’t really discuss them.  So when, in  4th or 5th grade, when I was 8 or 9, I got a book from the school library that was an anthology about unicorns, and one of the stories included some very odd descriptions of humans doing things with centaurs, I tried to sort out what was happening on my own. I hadn’t had sex-ed at that point, so I could only try to envision what was being described and guess at why it was happening. It didn’t cross my mind to ask my parents, and it definitely didn’t go over my head- it just kind of nestled into a place in the back of my mind. (A couple of years ago I tracked down a copy of the book to see if I could possibly be remembering correctly what it was I thought I’d read, and it was even more graphic than I’d remembered. How this book was in an elementary school library I will never know.)

In 6th grade I was reading adult (not “adult”) fantasy novels that included adult situations- one in particular included a rape that occurred “off screen” as it were, and as a result the character went catatonic. Again, I only vaguely understood what had occurred, I knew that she had been incredibly damaged, but I was unclear on details. In other books, people were frequenting brothels or were otherwise in adult situations. And again, it didn’t cross my mind to ask. It didn’t go over my head. It just went in the little cove of unexplained, slightly odd things in my head. And contrary to Judy Blume’s assertions, I didn’t put it down. It didn’t cross my mind to put it down.

In 7th grade, I was reading V.C. Andrews and her particular brand of wrongness.  Her books are the epitome of uncomfortable. I learned more about sex from those books that I did from the weird videos they showed us in biology, and that is highly problematic, because even if you loved V.C. Andrews, you have to admit that her books are seriously messed up.

My point is, it would be lovely if every time a kid stumbled upon something that they didn’t understand in a book they asked their parents. But I think it’s the case that especially with highly proficient readers, they’re not going to. I’m not judging my own parents at all, they are wonderful and would have answered any questions I brought to them. They just didn’t know what was in the books I was reading, and that’s my point. They were extremely attentive and aware parents, and they didn’t know. Taking my own experience and combining it with my knowledge of my own girls and their similar tendency not to talk about what they’re reading unless I instigate the discussion, I am VERY particular about what books they have access to. I don’t pre-read everything, but there are plenty of ways to check out a book before a kid reads it. I don’t think there is anything wrong with saying, “I think you need to wait a little while to read this one”, and I don’t think that’s censoring.  Because I know that there are far more options than either asking questions or letting it go over their heads.

That being said, my girls are only almost 6 and 8. And the things that I think are appropriate for them to read about are completely different than I will judge appropriate when they are older. I recently read this article by Sherman Alexie, Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood, and as far as teenagers are concerned, I absolutely agree that they need to be able to read about things that challenge them. He talks about books written for teenagers about rape and abuse, or poverty or harassment or any other number of problems that teenagers face. He says,

 But I became the kid chased by werewolves, vampires, and evil clowns in Stephen King’s books. I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life.

And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

A friend of mine with a teenage daughter was telling me about her reading Attack on Titan, an extremely gory Japanese comic. I flinched (I couldn’t make it through more than one episode of the show), but then I remembered back to my high school years, when I read the most horrible, terrifying horror books I could get my hands on.  I don’t think I was unusual in that, my friends read them too. Being a high schooler is horrible a lot of the time, and sometimes it’s nice (in a weird way) to know that there are more horrible things. But even then, I think parents need to know what’s in those books. There’s a huge difference between a teenager reading a book like Speak that SPOILER deals with sexual assault, and a book that has graphic sex scenes just to have them. In the one case, parents need to be able to sit down and talk to their teen about the issues being dealt with in the books they’re reading. In the second instance, they need to be able to sit down and talk to them about why that kind of book might not be the best reading choice. Either way, they need to be able to TALK ABOUT THEM.

So, I guess my point (and to quote Ellen, “I do have one”) is this. Just because a kid can technically read a book doesn’t mean that they’re going to understand it all of it. And just because they don’t understand it doesn’t mean it will go over their head or that they will volunteer that they don’t get it.

So I am very aware of what my kids are reading and I talk to them about it. I ask them questions. I let them ask me questions. Since they’re young,  I make informed choices about what books they read. When they’re teenagers, I’ll be discussing their reading choices with them- both the content of the books and the choosing process itself.  To that end, right now if I decide a book isn’t appropriate for them I tell them why. I talk to them about the books that I read. I let them know that it’s ok to not finish a book, to put it down if it doesn’t appeal to them or if something in it sets off their conscience. I read WITH them. I’m working on teaching them how to ask questions of the books that they’re reading. To question the main character and their perspective, and the author and their intentions. I’m trying to teach them to be safe, because not every book in the world is going to be good for them.

And within the books that are appropriate for their age, I let them read far and wide, about things that interest them, things that challenge them, things that make them feel and think. It’s so fun to watch that process, because our reading choices really do reveal our interests and feelings and thoughts, and what’s more fascinating to see than that?

One thought on “Some thoughts on paying attention to what your kids read

  1. marie chambers on

    Well stated. I wonder what things have been tucked away in the minds of my voracious readers. I could not keep up either. And my little ones are the ages of yours. I always appreciate your book suggestions. It is so good to find things that are appropriate and enjoyable.

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