Should we censor what our children read?

On our weekly trip to the library I found myself caught between a book and a hard place. My 2-year-old stumbled across Dr Seuss’s classic Green Eggs and Ham. We’re Jewish, and – not wanting to get into complicated explanations of what ham is and why our family doesn't eat it – my initial reaction was to distract him and tuck the book away between the encyclopaedias.

But I felt a little like the Library Gestapo. Should we really be censoring what our children read?

Parental guidance is advised

Traditionally, TV and film viewing restrictions are related to sex, nudity, violence and vulgar language. Since these are (usually) not a prime focus in children’s books, you’d think we’re safe, wouldn’t you?

But what about the Grimm Brothers, whose fairytale plots equaled those of any modern thriller? Did you know that Rapunzel got knocked up in the initial tale? Or that the dwarves originally sold off the comatose Snow White to the Prince, and that the evil stepmother was tortured to death with a red-hot iron?

Perpetuating damaging stereotypes

And then there are the infamous Golliwogs in Enid Blyton’s Noddy stories, whose black faces and criminal activities prompted accusations of racism. And epic adventurer Tintin, whose authors and illustrators have been accused of –amongst other things – racism, colonialism and cruelty to animals.

Young minds are extremely impressionable, and literature, even from infancy, is a prime tool for forming ideas.

Are we protecting our children by sanitizing our stories?

Disney has artistically reworked many of the Grimm fairy tales. The Golliwogs have been removed from Toyland. There are calls to ban Tintin in many countries. 

Individual parents also have the choice to bar certain stories from their bookshelves, or to adapt stories to suit their values. For example, a vegetarian may prevent simple nursery rhymes from raising larger, probing questions by tweaking the language (think “This little piggy had apple pie; this little piggy had none”).

A feminist friend of mine periodically changes the genders of the heroes and villains in her stories to avoid sexual stereotyping. For some adoptive parents, substituting the term “birth parents” where stories talk about “real parents” makes the language more comfortable and true for their situation.

None of these harmless adaptations change the essence of the story, and neatly sidestep what can be complex issues for toddlers and preschoolers. But there comes a time when we need to teach our children about controversial concepts, and books can be great tools to prompt discussion and understanding.

I think it’s important to be sensitive, but not censor-tive.

Green eggs and jam

So I let my son take the Dr Seuss book. And I sanitized it. Now his favourite book is ‘Green Eggs and Jam’. I feel a little sheepish, but if I examine our intention, we’re looking to literature for entertainment here, not social commentary.

He’s only 2, and perhaps bedtime is not the right moment to open the can of worms about dietary laws and ritual slaughter. 

That’s an issue for another day.

Would you censor or sanitize what your children read?
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