My kindred spirit Peter Neiger recently posted In Virginia classrooms, should parents block sexually explicit literature for their kids?
When I was a child, all I wanted was to be grown. I hated being condescended to by people who were obviously dumber than me. I chafed at restrictions on my autonomy. I despised how the public education system wasted my time. I hated that there was no escape but to wait. I’d go to the mall and look at teens with their cool clothes and hair and developed bodies and independence and imagine I was one of them. Then I’d go back to reading Edgar Allen Poe and beat poets and brooding.
It’s not that I expected adulthood to be a wild ride of freedom and opportunity. My mom struggled so hard, so many people in Alabama struggled so hard, that I worried about how I’d get and keep a nice office job without the ability to do basic math or science. Adulthood was scary, full of hard work and big bills and true responsibility.
But since it loomed and there was no way to avoid it, I wanted to get on with it. I wanted to get started on my adult life immediately. There was no good reason to wait.
That was kind of my mom’s attitude toward parenting. She’s never been one to bullshit me. About anything. She always gave me the straight dope, whether about Santa Claus, sex, money, drugs, whatever. She read Macbeth to me before I could read and I watched R-rated movies before I understood what was going on in them. I remember during a rape scene she asked me if I knew what was happening. I told her I did, but I didn’t. I don’t know why I said it. Maybe I didn’t want to make her explain the movie to me in the theater. I also don’t know why I remember that, or when I realized what had been happening in that scene.
All that to say, if there is some advantage to infantilizing kids by pretending the world is nicer and easier than it really is, I wouldn’t know. If my mom had tried to coddle me I would have looked that shit up. In fourth grade I won the 4H speech contest by talking about my uncle getting clean. I had no idea how weird that was until the other kids gave their speeches on how to tie your shoes and how great rainbows are. In middle school I chose torture as my topic for our presentations on the medieval period.
Benefits or no, I think we do tremendous harm when we lie to children by omission.
Whether it’s the phenomenon of the boomerang generation or the infantilization of young women on college campuses or even America’s foreign policy, I think the desire to prolong ignorance and deny reality is doing American people a huge disservice.
Laura Murphy is the Fairfax County mother who said she was “horrified” to discover that her son, a high school senior, was assigned to read “Beloved.”
What exactly is “horrifying” about a 17 or 18 year old person, an adult, reading a 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel? Yes, it’s got some nasty shit in it. You know what else has nasty shit in it? Life. Adulthood. The real world. Hell, high school itself has some pretty nasty parts if I remember correctly.
Teens reading novels isn’t horrifying. Someone graduating high school without having been allowed to think critically about the real evils they’re going to face through the lens of great literature is horrifying.
Were it actually possible to shield children from bestiality scenes post home internet access this would be a different discussion. So let’s just set aside the utter futility of actually preventing anyone from knowing anything at any age.
Let’s focus on the principle of the matter. Because the problem isn’t censorship of great works of literature. The problem is that you can’t prolong childhood indefinitely without stunting someone’s growth. If you infantilize people you wind up with large, not-very-cute infants. The price of avoiding responsibility and other scary stuff for as long as possible is hobbled young people. Even the best and brightest are crippled by parents and teachers and college administrators who prioritize comfort over growth.
It was odd watching that rape scene and not understanding it. It wasn’t bad, actually. It wasn’t a very violent rape. Rape wasn’t scary to watch before I knew what it was. When I learned what rape was I learned to be scared of it. My dad walked me through the forest and taught me which snakes were okay to pick up and so I learned to be afraid of most snakes.
In high school I went to a party with my girlfriend. It was a bunch of people in their 30’s. They were friends with a couple she babysat for. A man offered us some liquid in a bottlecap that he said was ghb. Which, as it turns out, is both a party drug and a date rape drug. I took half the dose he recommended. I had one drink. I was afraid. My friend took the whole dose. And some other stuff. And some drinks. I watched a man carry her limp body into a bedroom while the first hardcore porn I’d ever seen played on a tv in the bedroom I was in. A man suggested I take off my shirt. Some guests echoed that suggestion. I politely declined.
Look guys, I’m not saying that my mom being real about rape saved me from getting all kinds of raped at a party that seems like it was set up for the purpose of raping some high school girls. But I am saying it probably didn’t hurt.
Yes, adulthood is scary. Yes, there’s nasty shit in the world and if there were less of it that’d be nice. But not knowing about nasty shit doesn’t make shit less nasty. It does make you less prepared for it though.
And yes, while adulthood might be scary and full of nasty shit, but it’s also fucking amazing. Knowing things and reading novels and making choices and dealing with consequences, directing my own life, is the most wonderful amazing shit ever. It beats the pants out of not knowing about nasty shit. I’ll know about all the nasty shit in the universe for the chance to decide what I do with my time.
Another thing that sucks about being unprepared for life because you’re living in a fantasy is that you can’t help but be a fucking drain. I’ll take all the uncomfortable truths in the world for the chance to add value to other people’s lives. Full participation in society requires being aware of what society entails, even the not-nice parts. That was another thing I hated about childhood. I hated knowing that in the corporation of the family, I was a cost center, not a profit center. How dare we rob young people of the chance to contribute the value they’re capable of creating?
Like I said, I didn’t really do childhood like normal kids. Maybe it’s awesome. But I’m tired of reading about children with saggy boobs and a paunchy gut in the news. Let people grow up.
As someone who is about to embark on a high school English teaching career, I find this valuable and insightful. I agree wholeheartedly as well.
Oh this makes me so happy.
I was shielded from very little, growing up in the 1960s and 70s. As a “troubled, gifted youth” I was assigned Catcher in the Rye to read in 7th grade. I didn’t understand much of it, but I understood enough, I suppose. The point is, I became a person that people could really “open up to” even while in my mid teens. Insight can only come from confronting the real truths of life.
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