I have a tendency to stick with children’s authors I know and trust these days. We’ve found a few new ones we like, of course, but I’ve become wary of what’s out there. Trust me on this, there is a whole lot of crap available to our kids.
My daughter picks out most of her own books. This is a very good thing, because she’s only discovered how much she likes to read in the last several months. Before that, if I handed her a book and told her to have some quiet time, you’d think I’d asked her to shovel manure out in the yard. She could read, yes, but she didn’t like to do it.
Anyway, I’m now in the habit of scanning her books to make sure there’s nothing in there I don’t like. I thought this was something only the most extreme religious fundamentalists did. And I’m not even looking for objectionable religious content! I just want to make sure that my kids aren’t reading urban legends disguised as “facts,” misogynistic fairy tales, or books glorifying aggression.
Now I have to look for books that send damaging messages about other things.
Two of the books we took out of the library last week required talking with my daughter about what the books are really saying. The first seemed okay when I glanced through it. But after reading it to her, we both went, “Huh?” It’s a cute story about eggs hatching into things and then laying more eggs, and babies growing up and having their own babies. Now, if you know anything at all about science, you know that only female birds lay eggs, only female butterflies lay eggs, only female polar bears give birth . . . you get the idea. At the end, there is a picture of a baby. It grows up to be . . . a boy. My daughter said at the end (no prompting from me), “Why isn’t it a girl baby?” Good question, kid. (For the record, I have no problem showing boys growing up to be fathers. My problem was a book filled with female animals concluding with a male baby. The baby should at least have been gender neutral, because the ending text is that the baby grows into a “boy, just like you.”)
The other story that bothered me was different. It was the story of a miniature dinosaur who feels ashamed of being little and gets picked on for his size. He does some heroic act and then everyone miraculously recognizes what an awesome dino he really is, becoming his best friends. Believe it or not, this one bugs me far more than my previous example.
This isn’t a good message for our kids. Think about it: Something is “wrong” with you (you’re not just like everyone else), so you get picked on (of course). You show everyone that you are brave, strong, and good (despite your obvious flaw). Suddenly, all the people who hated you now want to be your best friend.
First, this teaches three bad things about being “different.” One, being different is a Bad, Bad Thing. Your differences separate you from everyone else. Two, that if you don’t look or act just like everyone else, you might as well paint a giant target on your back. Because of course, no one different can be expected to make friends. Three, if you are “different,” you probably hate yourself because of it, as though no one could possibly feel confident unless he or she aligns perfectly with some mythical standard.
Second, it teaches that you only have value (especially if you are “different”) if you perform noble acts. You are required (again, especially if you’re “different”) to prove to others that you deserve respect and love. In fact, you only deserve it if you rescue the person who has been bullying you. (I love the way this is subverted in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Warning: Spoilers, highlight to read. Harry saves Draco Malfoy twice at the end, and then Ron Weasley punches him in the face from under the invisibility cloak. Message: “Sure, we’ll save you because we’re not heartless; but you’re still a major prick.”)
Third, it teaches kids that by being a Super Awesome Person, they will eventually get their enemies to adore them. Sorry, this isn’t the way things work. In fact, sometimes, bullies aren’t all that grateful for help. Sometimes, bullies still hate you. Sometimes, bullies grow up and they like you for you, whether you ever “rescued” them or not. Sometimes, bullies get to know you and like you because you’re fun and interesting. And sometimes they don’t. Being a hero isn’t the thing that changes relationships.
Thankfully, I have two bright kids who can read a story like that and understand that it doesn’t represent reality. The good news is, it leaves room for discussion. We have the opportunity to find out what our kids have seen and experienced in real life, and how they feel about the messages in the books.
Hm, I think I’ve changed my mind. Maybe instead of monitoring and rejecting, I’ll keep it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and take it as another chance to get to know my kids better.