An Open Letter to Christian Parents:
Hello. I know I say generically "Christian Parents" in the title, but really, this is directed at the parents of children in public schools. If you have chosen to homeschool your child for religious reasons, that's fine and dandy - you may still get something out of this. But today, I wish to direct my words at the parents of children ages 11 and above who are in the public school system. You understand why, then, I had to be a little vague in my title: "Dear Parents of Public School Children Ages 11-18 Who Identify As Christians (or an equally conservative division of another religion) and Want to Raise Their Kids as Christians" didn't quite fit.
Anyway. I'd like to speak to you today on a subject that, if you have not already encountered it, you will shortly. One of these days, your kid is probably going to come home from school with a book that has a sex scene, a violent murder, or a depiction of homosexuality, or suicide, or self-harm. And you're probably not going to be very happy that your kid is reading such dark material.
Look, I understand. I understand that you want your kid to grow up unscathed by the world in which they live, unaffected and unpersuaded to become an atheist and agnostic or heathen, and you want to be able to guide their views of the terrible things in this world. I get it – I have a 7-month-old niece, and I want to be able to talk with her about what it’s like to be a woman in this world…when she’s old enough to get it. And depending on how she grows, that might be when she’s 12 or it might be when she’s 17. I understand that you want to control the conversation with your children and parent in the way you deem fit – I would, too, if I had children.
I’m with you on that. I was raised in a Christian home, and I was pretty well protected from most of the “secular” world. I get the motivation my parents had for doing such a thing – the 80s and 90s were a new and scary time, and the 00s and beyond are newer and scarier. Your kids are encountering things you never dreamed they’d encounter. They have friends who have gay parents. In all likelihood, if you and your spouse are still married, your kid is in the minority of not being a child of divorce. They probably have friends who are starting oral sex and penetrative sex at younger and younger ages. When I was in high school, I remember being amazed to find out students in the after school programs at my old middle school had to be accompanied to the bathroom because they had been sneaking off and … experimenting.
I get it – it’s a scary world, and your little John, or Jenna, or Jamie needs to be protected so she can grow up and be a working, functional adult who is not going to complain about you in therapy when she’s 30.
Here’s what I don’t get: insisting that the school not have a book in their library that you find offensive, or that the kids not read certain books in class because of "objectionable content."
It’s like clockwork in the YA Lit world. Every couple of months or so, a new tale of book banning, or a new editorial on why book banning is a GOOD IDEA ™, surfaces, and YA authors and their fans get up in arms, write letters much like this one, and talk about why allowing YA lit to be free and open and unfettered by book banning is a GOOD IDEA ™. And there are plenty of authors, book reviewers, publishers, and students who have responded in kind, in better ways than I can express. And lots of these responses run along the same lines: freedom of speech rawr don’t censor our art rawr YA Lit saves lives rawr. And these are good, important arguments that need to be listened to.
But what I want to address here is a specific motivation for book banning: Religion. Touchy subject, I know. I want to assure you that I am a Jesus –follower to the core. I read my Bible, I attend church on a semi-regular basis, and I have a degree in theology, as well as a degree in English literature as it intersects with theology. I believe that Jesus is relevant to the world today just as you do and I believe all that stuff about holiness and righteousness and all that.
Where you and I differ, however, is in belief of how far we can extend those prohibitions about certain topics concerning our children.
I say our children because I am also a teacher, and the daughter of two teachers, so your kids are, in a sense, my kids too.
And I want you to know this: Not all teachers are evil. Not all teachers are attempting to corrupt your children. There are always some bad apples, yes, but I highly doubt that even the bad apples wake up in the morning and say “LET’S PSYCHOLOGICALLY SCAR SOME CHILDREN TODAY, SHALL WE?”
When teachers bring a book into the classroom, they do, in all likelihood, see some merit and teachable lessons in the novel. For example, John Green’s Looking For Alaska, which is, in many ways, a retelling of a classic novel – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is read all across the country in American Literature and composition classes – classes composed of people 16-17 years old, depending on the year they’re taking the course. Looking for Alaska, which is being added into the curriculum in several school in the US, is usually taught either at that same grade level or a year younger. The major difference between the two novels in terms of objectionable content? The latter has a scene in which a girl attempts to perform oral sex on her boyfriend, and fails miserably. It is ridiculous, uncomfortable, and not erotic. The reason the girl does this is because she feels like it’s what she’s supposed to do at that stage in the relationship, despite the complete lack of emotional intimacy between the two of them.
This uncomfortable, unerotic (yes, I just made that word up) scene is immediately followed by a scene of intense emotional intimacy between said boy and a girl he really does like. This scene has no physical intimacy whatsoever, but is, instead, a solid contrast to the meaningless, purely physical blowjob of merely pages before. As John Green has stated, of the two relationships in the novel, it is quite clear that the one teenagers should aim for is not the one of vacuous physical action, but rather the one of intense, deep emotional connection in which the physical is delayed or never happens. It is a novel that prizes connection and emotion in relationships over casual sex.
But well-meaning and good-intentioned parents like yourself would rather not have their 16-year-old young adult children reading about this casual intimacy in a classroom environment.
But here’s the thing: At 16 or 17, your kid probably already knows what oral sex is, if they have not experienced it themselves. And your kid reading about it in school, especially in the context of a classroom discussion about the author’s toying with differing levels of intimacy, is not going to make them suddenly want to run out and try it, just like how reading about murdering the king in Macbeth is not going to make them run out and listen to owls. Or just like how reading about Romeo’s impulsiveness and Juliet’s family pressures is not going to make your daughter run off on a romantic tryst and get married to the murderer of her cousin. Or just like how reading about racism in the South is not going to make your kid call every African-American they encounter a racial slur.
And if it did?
What you would do? Would you banish your kid to the cupboard under the stairs with no meals until his 18th birthday? Or would you be brave, take up your role as a parent, and discuss the issue with them, approaching them from a Biblical perspective about why experiencing sex before they’re meant to can be a source of disordered love?
This is what I mean when I say that book banning is shirking responsibility. By refusing to let your child read “x” book in a school setting – which, honestly, is the best setting for them to read such work because it turns any eroticism into something wholly not – you are telling your child that you are unwilling to have an honest and open conversation with them. And I get that that’s scary – it can be terrifying to be forced to approach a topic you’re uncomfortable discussing with someone you love so deeply that you would die for them. And it can be painful to possibly discover, in the course of that conversation, that yes, your good Christian daughter knows exactly what oral sex/rape/self-harm is, and possibly has done these things.
But you know what, Christian parents of the world? I have faith in you. I think, if you have the courage to bring a child into this world – something that terrifies me beyond belief – then you have the courage to confront the terrors and awfulness of this world alongside your child. You have the bravery, when you have children, to be a good parent and to talk to your kids about the issues they face as a part of this new and scary culture that is so different from what you encountered as a kid.
And you have the bravery to sit down, ask them about their schoolwork, and work alongside them as they discuss murder, suicide, physical intimacy, friendship and what it means to be an empathetic person in an increasingly callous world. You have the bravery to ask them what they’re reading when they bring home books from the school library and to have a conversation about why they’re reading what they’re reading, if they are reading in their leisure time.
And you have the bravery and courage to trust that the teacher knows what he or she is doing in assigning that novel or that the librarians understand the books they have in their collection and have reasons for putting them there. You have the courage to say to the parents of your child’s classmates that you may not agree with what they let their child be exposed to, but that you respect that this may just be the novel their child needs and that getting it from the school library may be the only way to do so.
You have the brains to understand that books really do save lives, just as you cling to your Bible for life-saving guidance. You, as a Christian parent, know better than most, the power that books have to change lives to change a person’s worldview, to make them understand love on a different level, and to help them to connect and understand the world around them better. And you understand that books, even those with objectionable content, can be discussed in a mature and intelligent fashion, without the readers turning into Hedonists because they read the word “fuck” on the page.
So why would you, a person whose life has been changed by a book, deny that same literary power of imagination, of adventure, of challenge, to your child, your friend’s child, or the child of a broken home who needs the hope that solidarity gives?
Be braver and better than that. Talk to your children. Find out what they're reading, and have a conversation. They may roll their eyes, but I assure you, they are listening, especially if you treat them like the mature adults they are becoming.
And for Christ's sake, stop blaming young adult authors for writing about the stories they feel need to be told. It's a losing battle no matter how nuanced or right you think your stance is.