It is a long standing tradition at my house – only briefly paused during the summer months – that I simmer a huge batch of some sort of soup for Sunday dinner. The leftovers then become lunches for several days during the week. September having begun, soup returns to the menu. Yes, I know it’s hot, and I don’t care.
So, right now, because it is Sunday, there are black beans simmering on my stovetop. After a while, I will add a can of tomatoes & chile, lime juice, cilantro, and chicken, and, with the mysterious and wonderful alchemy of long, slow cooking, this will transform itself into something amazing.
In honor of my Sunday simmer tradition, I will try to post my thoughts on something reading related on Sundays. Today, I’m going to talk about why I don’t censor what my children read.
Now, I have two kids – my daughter, Caitie, who is 16 years old and starting her junior year in high school, and Nick, who is 12 years old. This is mostly about Caitlyn, since she is the big reader of the two kids. I’ll have lots to say about Nick down the road a bit. He is a reluctant reader.
I have a lot of friends who are also raising kids, and when I tell them that Caitie is reading The Handmaid’s Tale, or The Kite Runner, or whatever book it is that she is reading, they will sometimes furrow their brows and mention that they aren’t sure about the age level of her books. And I wonder to myself, why would someone stop a kid from reading something that they have decided that they want to read?
I was raised in a household where I had full access to everything that was on my parent’s shelves. I took Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence off the shelf to read when I was around 13, expecting to be titillated and scandalized.
I think that it is scandalous, but heaven knows I couldn’t figure out where the dirty parts really were. I grew up on a diet of Kathleen Woodiwiss, and cave man sex in Clan of the Cave Bear. There was no such thing as Fifty Shades of Grey back then, but Rosemary Rogers was alive and well and writing fifteen kinds of rapey romance. And here I am today, unscarred by my early acquaintance with the likes of Jean Auel.
Of course, I also read much better fare as well. Anna Karenina, when I was 16, and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and James Michener, Alex Haley, M.M. Kaye and James Clavell. There was no such thing, really, as YA as a genre in the 1980’s, so if I didn’t want to read Nancy Drew – and I grew out of her in the fifth grade – I had no alternative but to raid the book shelves for the grown-up stuff, and boy did I.
It challenged me, and made me a better reader and a better thinker. Even then, I was smart enough to realize that Harold Robbins was trash. Entertaining trash, but trash.
So, when my daughter became a reader, I briefly thought about trying to control what she read and then I slapped myself hard and went, “WTF are you thinking, Christine?” Because I don’t want to control what she reads any more than I want to control what she thinks. I trust her brains and her good sense, and her ability to distinguish good stuff from the crap. She’s read Twilight, and it didn’t turn her into Bella Swann, swooning about for some creepy stalker dude to make her his obsession, I mean girlfriend. And every book she reads, she gets something out of, even if all she gets out of it is: “yuck.”
I trust her good sense and her incredibly thoughtful mind. And if she reads something I disagree with, all the better. Because the best antidote to bad ideas isn’t suppression of those ideas, it is exposure to better ideas. And if she comes to me with questions, I point her in the direction of ideas that I think have value so she can decide – for herself and after a lot of thought – which ideas she will accept and which she will reject. Sooner or later, she will be exposed to those ideas. I want her to have the tools to make her own decision about their values, since I can’t do her thinking for her.
So, in the same tradition that my parents offered me, I give her access to my bookshelves in their entirety. If she’s not ready for the books that are there, they won’t interest her. And, also, this makes me more cognizant of what I buy and what I put on those shelves because I want her to have access to the good stuff. The words that have stood the test of time, and are important and will make her a smarter person, if she just happens to pick them up.
Even D.H. Lawrence.
Would I be happy if she read Fifty Shades of Grey? Not really. I haven’t read it, but I’ve read enough about it to know that it is trash. Not because of the subject matter necessarily – books about those kinds of relationships can be relevant. They can be thought-provoking and well-written and ask questions about feminism and women and relationships that should be asked, whether or not they can be answered. Unfortunately, Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t seem like it is that kind of a book. Nonetheless, if she wants to read it, me telling her she can’t surely isn’t going to stop her. So far, she’s not interested. Knowing what I know about the quality that she demands in the books that she chooses to read, I seriously doubt she ever will be.
And I can’t entirely take credit for the fact that she reads good stuff that makes her think. But I made it available to her and I got out of her way so that she could read it when she thought she was ready for it – and it turns out she was right – so I get to feel a little glow of satisfaction when she turns up her nose at crap and picks something good.
I’d really like to hear what other people think. Do you have kids? And if you do, what are your plans when they start raiding your bookshelves? Were you a kid? Did your parents – successfully – monitor what you read? Were they hands off parents (when it comes to reading decisions) like my parents & I both decided to be? What kind of a parent do you think you will be?