Should we censor what our children read?
Earlier this year, at the Hay Festival, the much-loved author Judy Blume said parents worry too much about what their children read, claiming that if the content isn’t suitable, young readers will just let it go over their heads.
Not long after Blume’s comments, this year’s prestigious Carnegie medal was awarded to The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks, which was described by critic Lorna Bradbury as a ‘uniquely sickening read’.
Bradbury went on to question whether books like this are ‘good for our teenagers’, setting off a heated debate about what is and isn’t appropriate reading for children, which – as an author and a parent – I find very interesting.
I suspect that when people say children should be able to read anything, they mean they should be able to read ‘good’ books that may seem to be too old for them – I’m thinking of a friend asking if the second Harry Potter book is too mature for her five-year-old.
They don’t mean they should be able to read torture porn. Or regular porn. Or do they?
Author and mum of three, Rhian Ivory, says: “As a young teenager I read whatever I wanted, took adult books out of the library and borrowed my mum’s. If I felt uncomfortable when reading I simply put the book down and picked up something else.
“As a parent I try to read books either with my children or alongside them so that we can discuss any issues that arise. I’m hoping this will continue as they get older and that they’ll feel able to ask me questions about what they are reading.”
Mum of three boys, Stella McLoughlin, agrees: “The only time I ever worried about what the boys were reading was when Ewan picked up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
“He was 13 and I knew that he might be a bit young for some of the sexual violence but didn’t want to discourage him from reading, because it was the first thing he ever showed a real interest in. We let him go ahead and read, on the proviso that he talked to either of us if he wanted something explained.”
“At five and eight, censorship has not yet been an issue for my children,” George Kirk says. “But I would want to have awareness of what they were reading, feel comfortable that they has the maturity to think about an issue and be ready to maybe discuss or support with anything troubling if need be. Books are the safest place to deal with troubling issues when you are ready to.”
‘When you are ready’ raises an interesting point. Because surely some books just are inappropriate for younger readers, aren’t they? You wouldn’t give, say, American Psycho to an eight-year-old just because he or she had an advanced reading age.
Some limits are just good parenting, surely? If I think about parallels with films, between children’s and adult we have the PG rating for ‘parental guidance’ – why shouldn’t parents also guide children with books?
Sally Whittle admits that she censors her eight-year-old daughter’s reading for exactly this reason “Flea is eight with a reading age of around 13,” Sally says, “so she’s reading Young Adult fiction, and I censor for both sex and violence.
“I know that people get very heated when faced with the idea of censoring books for any reason, but it’s not really censorship we’re talking about here.”
Father of a new daughter John Bancroft points out: “There is a massive difference between censorship and responsible parenting.
“Censorship is the government or similar organisation stopping anyone reading a particular book. Responsible parenting is stopping your child reading something inappropriate when they are younger, then advising/suggesting what is good/bad as they get older.”
Liat Hughes Joshi, author of Raising Children: The Primary Years, agrees. “I can see what Judy Blume is saying in that sometimes we parents worry too much about a book being ‘the right level’ or challenging enough,” she says.
“But I don’t agree that they should be allowed to read whatever they want. It’s akin to saying they should be able to watch whatever they want on TV or on YouTube – just because reading is viewed as a more wholesome activity doesn’t mean books can’t be alarming or inappropriate.”
“What is and isn’t going to be inappropriate will vary for each individual child – some obviously get scared far more easily than others.
“If a book was causing nightmares or anxiety, of course any responsible parent is going to be concerned and if they can’t reassure them that the story is not real (assuming it’s fiction), then it’s surely wise to steer them towards something else.”
That seems perfectly reasonable to me. I hope Judy Blume would agree.
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