Children and Books

The planets’ aligning caused this unnecessary post on my blog.

First I finished a month of writing a poem a day in the NaPoWriMo cohort. (By the end of the month bad doggerel was tripping off my tongue whichever way I looked, not a good outcome.) However I am now  iPad loose and fancy free.

Second my wonderful teacher daughter started off a survey, on Twitter no less, about children’s classic books and what we read as children. Third was that as a consequence I had a long interesting conversation with each of my son-in-laws about what they read as children. Each of them is a non-violent, thoughtful, hard working member of society and a wonderful parent.

Lastly, yesterday, the organization Generation Next asked for violence to be removed from children’s books and published an interesting post by Naomi Cook which asked the question (and she more or less answered her question in the positive), “Should we write violence out of children’s books?”.

Here we have two of the greatest interests for me on this planet coming together in what seems to me a massive astronomical collision, child development and books. How can a black hole of non-matter be avoided in this collision?

Should children’s books be yet another area in which we have “helicopter parenting”? This type of parenting is bad enough when children, merely because of the very loving but over terrified care some parents give them, become frightened of their own shadows. It also tends to lead to an expectation that, while bad things sometimes happen in the world, a particular family can be exempt because of high vigilance. None of this is helpful or realistic. To limit children’s knowledge of real violence and its presence in the world is a mistake. In my opinion they should, however, be also brought up to think it usually is avoidable. Options which are an alternative to violence should be widely discussed.

I have been a long time campaigner against censorship per se. I am conceited enough to think any censor has much less acumin and knowledge than I have to decide what will be damaging for me, and if I think this, then the same has got to apply to everyone else.
But I do agree that children are a little different and therefore certain programs should be scheduled on the media when they are in bed or pornographic DVDs should be stored in a high cupboard! I rather despise TV programs or games filled with gratuitous violence and feel free say this loudly to anyone watching such a program. This tendency of mine can develop into a feisty argument that, I feel, harms nobody. Children need to learn the art of debate.

It is concerning, as Ms Cook has said, that we can all potentially be desensitized by unrealistic violence on screen or in games, where death is rarely final and massive injury is instantly brushed off by the brave. This has been around for some years, as far back as Disney, if we look at the example even of the Road Runner. Recent developments in computer generation have made animations much more realistic than in those days. On the other hand being exposed to realistic violence such as some scenes we saw on television during the Vietnam War, can and often does have positive consequences.

But these issues do not apply to books. Books require much more effort to absorb and much more imagination to interpret. We underrate children’s capacity to do this. I did not like the message when reading The Hunger Games, but, despite their popularity they were somewhat derided by many of the young. One grandson gave me a published “send up” version to read which was very popular and which was doing the rounds of his friends!

Another protection is that if books are not understood they are often abandoned. One of my sons, a very early, avid reader asked could he read a James Bond novel. My few concerns were allayed very soon. He asked, part way into the book if it was all right to skip some pages. Of course I said, “Yes”, as I agree that skipping is a great asset in some books, but, out of interest, I asked him what pages he wished to skip. He replied that it was boring when women took off their clothes and danced with pineapples on their heads. Fair enough for a seven year old. Gratuitous violence can be and often is treated the same way.

Returning to Ms Cook’s comments, I support her view that, if it were not necessary for her plot, it was better not to have a scene which involved a man being eaten by a crocodile in her book. But, if she did decide this was a necessary scenario, the reader has time to digest this information, match it with alternatives or reasons for the event or decide to skip those paragraphs. 

Children have their own way of interpreting what they do not understand but, in books they can do this slowly and with thought and sometimes after asking questions. Violence is part of life. We do not want to eliminate any part of ordinary living from their world nor can we do so effectively. It is not a healthy or educational way of preparing any child for the future. We do not need to helicopter them away from the notion of violence. After all we kill and feed animals to our children. Before the age of two they can link the fluffy, feathery toy they cuddle with chicken nuggets. But what we need to do is to encourage children’s writers to deal with the ethics of violence. I think many do already.

Dr Seuss does. He links rights with responsibilities. Enid Blyton did. The naughtiest girl in the school often shocked the reader. The plethora of avid Biggles readers, which included myself did not grow up war mongrels or anti German. There were some gender issues in many of the old classics but some of us still grew up feminist. And there was a great deal of fun and adventure.

I am no authority on what happens in fantasy books as I read very little In that genre, but even John Wyndham has some messages for discussion in his books. I am led to believe, from the brief discussions I have had with fantasy reading children, that there are goodies and baddies. I certainly know that ethics is heavily discussed in Halo Reach.

Ethics and the meaning of actions can not so easily be or are not always raised in short films and in games operated by children. But the same cannot be said of books. This makes them a great medium for discussing the thorny topics in life.

Let us not so sanitize the world for children that they grow up emotionally crippled as adults by being either frightened of or disappointed in what they ultimately discover life is.

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About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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2 Responses to Children and Books

  1. If the violent children’s books were banned, we’d have to start with the Bible, Hans Anderson and the Brothers Grimm and all the other wonderful old tales that opened us to the world of an earlier era. We must bear in mind that children cannot be shielded from violence, which is all around; human and natural. Nor, as you say, should they be. I shot my friends with capguns and fell down dead eleventy times. Somehow I failed to turn into a homicidal maniac. On the contrary, I’m one of the least violent human beings on the planet.

    There is one simple fact in all this. A child who is secure, loved at home and has violence explained to them properly according to their ability to cope with it when they ask about it is led only to a compassionate view of life. Very little can hurt them.

    So where’s the dividing line? We don’t legislate for all on the basis of the frailest members of society, because children are tough and can be cruel, and that’s a fact of life. We tend to the needs of the frail in other ways, if they’re lucky. [Quite often they end up in prison, but that’s the other end of the spectrum.]

    In most cases, as the old Beatles song says, “Love is all you need.” Children can cope with nearly anything if they feel loved.

    But, when a 14 year old boy plays an interactive computer game where he is introduced for the first time in his life to an option where [and this is programmed into one “adult” game] he can pick up a prostitute, take her to a dive where he can rape, rob, and/or beat her – even kill her – we are taking any child down a path so sinister that it takes my breath away.

    The dividing line is abundantly clear there, you would think. And yet, such games routinely and easily fall into the hands of kids even younger than 14.

    So let’s not worry a great deal about the stories read in a secure environment. Save that for circumstances where children are allowed to participate actively in scenarios they are not ready to cope with – or shouldn’t be offered to them (or adults for that matter) at all.

  2. Anne Powles says:

    That brings back memories Denis. Was there anything much more gruesome than, for example,The Grimm Brothers’ “Wolf and the Seven Little Kids”? And no moral at all except perhaps that of being careful when you let someone in the door by making sure they don’t have flour on their feet!  Over the centuries these tales have already been developed, sanitized, slightly moralized and made less violent. But has the world also become sanitized and less violent step by step with this?

    Although it is thought that there is a correlation between aggression and watching violence on TV or Video Games, one has to wonder which way such a correlation goes. Could it be that aggressive people who have not learnt how to deal with feelings and concepts of violence when they are young are more likely to indulge in it when they are older or is it, in fact, continual exposure to violence that engenders the need for more?

    Simple, but weird little fairy stories have been read to many children over the years, and, as you say, reading to children is usually done in a secure and supported environment where, on occasions, they learn the sad facts that all will not always be right in the world.

    Of course some very sensitive children can be disturbed by some of the violence in children’s books, but they are hardly likely to be the ones who will later indulge in violence as adults. It will be up to us as a society to support them in their views that alternatives to violence should be promoted.

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