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Highly inappropriate, then and now

“That song is definitely not appropriate for children,” my ten-year-old daughter said to me the other day, hearing a song being played in a store.


My husband and I have been talking about the books we read as kids. Brave New World. 1984. Of Mice and Men. Great books, all about sex, much of it deviant or definitely-out-of-wedlock sex.

And those were the books we were assigned in school. On our own time, we read anything we could get our hands on. My husband says he read his parents’ pulp novels that they left lying around. I read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret in the third grade. I’d worked my way up from the “third grade shelf” in my school library, and no one thought to tell me that might not be a good idea. From there, I went to Wifey, Judy Blume’s highly inappropriate book…written for adults.

A book that I remember vividly—yet not at all—from my childhood.

As we talked about what we read, what occurred to us is what didn’t happen: Our parents (or any other adult) didn’t get involved. We read these books, and listened to those songs (rather less racy in our time) without parents hanging over our shoulders. Our parents didn’t ask what we were reading, and they certainly never considered reading out loud to kids who could read themselves.

In our family, however, books are for sharing. We only stopped reading out loud to our son last year, around the time he turned 13. And that has less to do with a parenting decision than with lack of time. But we still read books “together”—we suggest books for him, and talk to him about books we are reading. On top of that, I have recently started a literature discussion group for teens—including my son—that is exploring the canon of “must read before college” books—a list that includes those sex-filled books by Steinbeck, Orwell, Huxley, and more.

All of this has led me to a question: Are we more prudish than our parents, who “let” us read anything? Did they only pretend to not know what we were reading? Or did they really not care?

I don’t think it’s prudery: I don’t object to kids reading books out of some sort of “that sort of book shouldn’t be read” type of sensibility. I think it’s something else, something that my daughter hit upon when she declared a song “inappropriate” for herself and peers. Parents today are not separating themselves from kids as much as parents used to. When kids first got into rock-n-roll, parents were scandalized. These days, parents take their kids to concerts and buy albums that both they and their kids like. These days, parents are doing things like NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) with their kids, rather than hiding their writing from their kids. My husband and I were thrilled when our older child started to approach the maturity that we thought he needed to read some of our favorite books.

But I remember when—I think it was a year ago—I was looking for a good book to read out loud with my son and I grabbed 1984. Oh, I thought, he’ll love this. All the questions it brings up about freedom of thought, speech, government… and sex. That’s what I realized as I started to read it. I had pretty much forgotten everything in that book that made it, to put it mildly, “inappropriate” as a read-aloud. My husband had the same reaction when looking at Brave New World as a possible “read together” book.

Both of us realized that our pre-teen brains apparently skipped over everything that we would now deem “inappropriate.” When you are reading to yourself, in isolation, the parts that stick are the parts that resonate with you. And what resonates with a 12-year-old from Brave New World or 1984 is the incredible power that the words conveyed. The strong authorial hand that pulls us into the story. The parts that didn’t resonate with us were the parts that had nothing to do with our experience. My husband says that he didn’t even remember sex as part of Brave New World, though it turns out to figure pretty prominently in the story.

My daughter and I have been listening to an audiobook of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in the car. This is another book that affected me deeply. I probably read it at about the same age as the protagonist as the book opens, 11. And much of it, I now realize, went right past me. I remember the tree, reading on the fire escape. I remember the pickle wrapped in paper, the stale bread, the many trips to the candy store. But when I was considering the book for our book club, I read a variety of opinions about it: “not appropriate” for younger children, so many people said, citing the alcoholic father, the lecherous store-keeper, the racism that the kids innocently take part in.

But none of this is impressing my daughter. She has been listening intently to the strange world of an early 20th century Irish-American girl, almost my daughter’s age. This girl lives to read; my daughter just today read three books. This girl just loves “Jew” pickles; my daughter loves to pull a sour pickle out of the jar and savor it. This girl adores her daddy, lives in Brooklyn, where my daughter’s daddy is from, and sees everything going on in her neighborhood.

My daughter doesn’t seem interested in the drunk father or the lecherous storekeeper. When I asked about the way the kids were talking about Jews, my daughter said, Well, they weren’t saying anything really mean.

Each age understands things in its own way. As adults, we filter what we read through the wider experiences of our lives. But kids look for the things that speak to them. Often, they ignore the things that we deem “inappropriate.”

But even more often, they simply notice them and go on.

“That song is definitely not appropriate for children,” my ten-year-old daughter said to me as we walked through a store, the song playing so quietly in the background I couldn’t pick out the words.

“Why?” I asked.

“Bad words,” my daughter said. She didn’t repeat the words or continue the conversation. She knows what our values are, and until she’s ready to question them, she’s content to know that a song is just not right for her yet. It reminds me of my childhood, when we would seek out “naughty” songs and feel so grown-up listening to them. It never would have occurred to me to talk to my mother about them. In fact, I remember a parallel situation from my teen years: My mother and I walking through the supermarket and my realizing that the Muzak playing on the speakers was “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

“Do you know that this song is about LSD?”

No, I didn’t not say that to my mother. That would have been, well, highly inappropriate.

Posted in Culture, Parenting.

7 Responses

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  1. Michelle says

    One of the things I love about being a parent is revisiting things and your write up about the “appropriate” books really made me think about this. I grew up very overprotected as far as movies and television went (I was forced to close my eyes during to “kissing scenes” until I moved out in my early 20s) but since my parents were not readers (AT ALL), I got to read books uncensored. Like you, I read a few “inappropriate” books when I was a younger teen but since I had NO life experience to speak of, I had no real point of reference to what was shocking or inappropriate. It was only after I grew up that I got more of an appreciation of what I was reading.

    • Suki says

      I’ve heard from some people that the problem with having access to inappropriate books at an early age is that it can be confusing and upsetting to kids. As we were listening to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I was wondering how a Jewish child who didn’t talk things over with a parent would react to the characterizations of Jews in the story. But on the other hand, so much of what we think will be shocking or upsetting just goes by kids – they don’t seem to process it. We just read Watership Down for our book club, and one of the moms said that someone had been surprised that she “let” her kids read it. But much of what adults see in the story as allegory, kids just see as rabbits living rabbit lives. So it’s hard to know when something a child reads will move from “doesn’t process” into “causes distress because it doesn’t process.” I certainly got a skewed version of marriage from reading Wifey, but I don’t remember being upset by it. It was clearly so different from what I saw around me that I took it as a story and nothing more…

  2. kim says

    I’ve had the same experience watching movies from my past with my 9 and 11 year old…sex scenes and language I didn’t even remember as being part of the story. We take them to plays all the time with the common response from parents being, “You’re taking them to see that?” Regardless, my kids always come away wanting to see it again and never mention the inappropriate parts when recalling it to others. As for literature, I too sought out the adult books when Nancy Drew no longer held my interest. A friend of mine was looking for books her 13 year old daughter would enjoy, but complained that there just isn’t anything written for young teens nowadays. I had to tell her I beg to differ. The market is saturated with tween authors but it’s as if what we allow our children to read nowadays, or what is deemed appropriate is largely dumbed-down, vanilla-fied material (or is written as fantasy). So I sent my friend a list of books I read even younger than 13 that her daughter might enjoy, but had to be sure to mention that much of it might contain inappropriate material by today’s helicopter parenting standards. But like art, if it’s done well, just because the subject is naked doesn’t mean a child can’t learn something from it. Good writing is good writing. Thank you for your perspective, but one minor detail, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is not about LSD. It was written by John Lennon as a response to a picture his son had drawn. But your point was taken.

    • Suki says

      Oh, don’t get me started on the dumbed-down books they put out these days. I wrote an article about that for a children’s writing industry blog. When my son was ten, all of a sudden we found very little for him to read: he’d read everything (and I mean everything) in the library for kids, and he didn’t like the dark themes of YA. (I wrote a book list for that stage.) My only concern with kids reading adult literature is when it might have things that will really upset them. Otherwise, I think kids basically notice what they’re ready to understand, and any voracious reader is probably going to get into adult literature “too early” for deep understanding. But that’s OK – I remember how I loved reading “Jane Eyre” over and over, and probably didn’t get half of what it was really about, but the darkness of the language just thrilled me.

  3. Jean says

    I have been having a very similar experience with the Laura Ingalls books. I LOVED them as a kid, but am finding them hard to explain to my 8 year old daughter. I just stopped explaining things unless she asked. Thanks for putting in words what I was already thinking. Some of the more earlthy/depressing parts aren’t resonating with her. And naturally we’ve had a few movie choices that seemed like a good idea until the unremembered scenes came on! Oops! Oh well, this is the world we live in. At least her parents are there with her.

    • Suki says

      Sorry – for some reason I didn’t get the approval notice for your comment so it was left hanging for a few weeks! The life of being a too-busy mom.

      At least when you’re reading books out loud you can do quick edits as you read. Movies can really surprise you, though. One of the things we noticed immediately was all the bad language we hadn’t remembered. We have one who really loves to shock people with language, so we try to avoid that. And sometimes we remember a film as being totally child-appropriate… well, we didn’t have children then!

      It’s interesting that your daughter reacts to the bad parts in Little House. When I as a child my mother got me a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder that totally blew me away. I remember so clearly reading the author’s words: “Ma was actually not pretty at all.” Ma not pretty? How could that be? Then as an adult I read the New Yorker piece about Rose Wilder and her role in whitewashing the books, and that made me a total Little House skeptic. My daughter still loves them, though. She told me recently that she likes to reread them while she’s waiting for books she ordered to come in at the library. I think I’ll hold off on getting her that book that said Ma was homely, though.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Worthy Reads | Mama of Letters linked to this post on February 18, 2013

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