My tween daughter reclined on the sofa, reading a book. As I walked by, I glimpsed the book’s cover: the picture of a young couple paused mid-kiss. Little alarm sirens went off in my brain. “What’s that book?” I asked.
In reply, she held up the book for further inspection and kept reading.
“Where’d you get it?”
Hm, I thought, and asked to look at it more closely. YA romance. The blurb told me next to nothing about the appropriateness of the content for a twelve-year-old, so that afternoon, I skimmed through the book. Two big things appeared:
- Plenty of raw language (the f-word was frequent).
- The sex scenes were not explicit by adult romance terms, between two teens who obviously cared deeply for one another. They used protection. They respected one another and were in a monogamous relationship. The young man’s father had a “pre-sex talk” with him about respecting women, mutual pleasure, and respecting his girlfriend if she said “no”. In other words, it was the best case scenario for premarital sex.
This is when I hate being a responsible parent. Now I had to decide: Was this okay for a tween to read?
I’m not a prude. I’ve talked to my daughter about sex, sexuality, rape, my personal convictions and expectations for her behavior toward men. We’ve talked about STDs. We’ve talked about menstrual cycles. She rolls her eyes, as if to say, Mom, we’ve talked about this before!
(At one point, when I said we need to discuss something when Cecilia wasn’t around, she asked, “Is it about puberty?” Apparently, my talks about “becoming a woman” aren’t appreciated. This particular time the talk was about Cecilia being accelerated a grade. No rhapsodies on the joys of periods and bras. She was relieved.)
I’d rather her hear the facts from me and her father than peers.
But in a novel? What was the right thing to do?
A few weeks ago, a Christian literary agent was discussing authors moving from the CBA market (Christian market) to the general market. A commenter made the suggestion that authors who didn’t want to have explicit content (language and sex) in their novels could always write for the YA and middle grade market. “They’re cleaner!” the commenter enthused.
Um, no. Obviously, this commenter hadn’t set foot in the YA or middle grade sections of a bookstore in a while. Books marketed for teens and tweens have just as much language, sex, and violence as anything in the adult section; it may be toned down (as the sex scenes in this novel were) but it’s still there. It’s marketed for a younger audience, that’s all.
We’ve encountered this problem frequently over the years. Both my daughters read at a high level for their age. One reads at a college level, the other at an 8th grade level. But they’re still twelve and seven, with the emotional maturity levels of those ages.
What is both challenging enough and age-appropriate?
This may seem like whining about being too thin or too rich. I wish I had that problem with my kids, some parents grumble. I can’t get mine to read at all. Or, try having a dyslexic child!
But like being too thin or rich, there are problems with being too good at reading. As a twelve-year-old girl, I had this issue (or rather, my parents did). I was bored with the brain candy my peers read, I’d read all the standard children’s classics, I desperately wanted to read more grown-up things. I was also a fast reader; a three-hundred-page novel might be devoured in a day or two.
But I was still a child in many ways. It wasn’t like my mom could hand over Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov or Moby-Dick and expect me to understand them. Finally, she let me read Agatha Christie’s novels and the newly re-edited George MacDonald books. Murder mysteries and theologically-driven novels were deemed safe enough for my consumption. My sixth grade teacher asked me for book recommendations.
So I’ve been here before. Only now I’m the adult. Now I have to decide.
On one hand, I don’t want to unnecessarily censor content. That leads either to unfounded naiveté, believing the world is a safe’n’squeaky clean place, or to sneaking around, reading the banned books on the sly. Or, worse, sneaking around online.
On the other hand, she’s twelve. I’m the parent. I am responsible for my child and for exposing her to the real world in an age-appropriate manner.
Could I have used the sexual content as a springboard for a discussion? I’m sure I could’ve, and would’ve, if she were slightly older. It seemed to be a little too much information for a twelve-year-old, though. (Does she need to know how a guy puts on a condom?)
And what about the language? It’s one thing to know certain words and what they mean, and to know when it’s appropriate (or not) to use those words. It’s quite another to read a book where these words are presented as normal words for conversational usage.
I told her, “If you were older, I’d let you read this and we could talk about it. But I think the content may be a little too mature for you.” I explained my two areas of concern. I added that the book appeared reasonably well-written and when she’s older, I’ll let her read it so that we can discuss it together.
She groaned. “But I don’t have anything to read!”
“Wait until school starts. Then you’ll have plenty to read.”
And thank God for English teachers. Now she has a stack of books to read and she’s delved into The Screwtape Letters.