What the Bleep? People want to put profanity ratings on young adult books?

Kiersten White’s bestseller, Paranormalcy, famous for its “bleeps”

This week I stumbled (via Twitter) onto a discussion about whether books for young adults ought to carry parental warnings based on language–that is, based on the frequency of specific curse words.

Two young adult writers, Gayle Forman and Kiersten White had terrific posts at their blogs on the answer (no, and why, and what instead) that got me thinking about the question itself. It had never even occurred to me that books should carry ratings of this sort. Somehow, to me, books were in a category quite different from movies or video games or even music–other things that carry ratings.

I curse quite a bit. But I never curse in front of my children. When we discovered that my older daughter was an early reader we had to take down a piece of art containing profanity that she (whoops) read aloud one evening at the dinner table when she was three.

My general idea is that when my kids start using words I don’t want them to use, I’ll tell them those are 18-and-older words that they can use when they are grown up. I censor them for more than one reason. First and foremost, I’d just rather they learn more nuanced ways to express themselves–even inventing their own curses on occasion–than resorting to worn cliches too soon. But not a small part of my concern about their vocabulary is the fact that they don’t have the white privilege of being thought precociously, irreverently cute when they curse. They are more likely to draw a racist–even a subtle, unconsciously racist–response from middle-class white adults if they use profanity. I also don’t want my kids to be “those kids” who introduce the other kids to swearing before their parents are ready for it.

So like I said, I curse (and my characters in my books sometimes curse, depending on who they are and the context), but never in front of my kids. And I protect my kids from hearing or reading swear words.

But my kids are five and seven.

When they are twelve and fifteen? I am not sure, but while the under-eighteen speaking rule may still be in place, I seriously doubt I will censor their reading based on cursing.*

I myself never got much into “young adult” literature as a “young adult.” This was possibly because there wasn’t so much of it at the time (in the eighties), but it was also because when I was a teen, I didn’t like being put in boxes (you know, like all teens) and I resented the idea that I ought to like a book because it was aimed at my developmental level. That felt condescending, and nothing could be more offensive to a teen than condescension.

I am still a little baffled by this today, even as I write “young adult” books for the bourgeoning category. Perhaps the fact that so many young adult books are being read by adults allows teens to embrace them without feeling condescended to. (This is not to say that I think young adult books are in fact condescending to teens, only that as a teen, I would have felt the label itself to be so.)

All I can suppose is that putting parental warning labels on books (especially ones based on profanity for heaven’s sake) would really turn teens off. I mean, talk about condescending!

In my own under-eighteen reading life, I was not censored by my parents at all.

There was a lot of benign neglect in my childhood, as both of my parents worked for pay, away from home, full time, and my brother and I were what the eighties coined “latch key kids” for many years of childhood. Combine these conditions with a house whose walls were literally lined with books–many of which my parents didn’t even know the contents of (my father owned an independent bookstore and the things just arrived, often unbidden, in boxes on the doorstep with regularity) and with the fact that I have been an avid reader ever since I learned to read and you get a young Shannon reading widely and chaotically and not always–almost never, in fact–age-appropriately.

But here’s what happened. The “bad” stuff flew right over my head (as did plenty of not-so-bad, but just beyond my education level stuff). Alternately, I learned things I was ready to learn, though I might have been wary of asking my parents about it directly.

As for my own parenting, I like Kiersten’s advice to read with your kids. (and don’t get me wrong, latchkey kid or not, my parents read with me, to me and near me throughout my childhood. Some of the age-inappropriate books were gifts from my parents, who nevertheless thought I’d get something important from them or just plain enjoy them.)  And I feel this is the way to go about a lot of things when it comes to my kids–let them read or hear or watch certain things with me and discuss those things. We are beginning to hit this stage a little now that we have school peers with different experiences and levels of permissiveness in their families. (I spend a lot of time these days critiquing Batman’s problem-solving techniques with my five year-old and trying to figure out what could possess anyone to admire Justin “Beaver” when his music is so awful with my seven-year old.)

But I still think books are different from television, movies, video games–even music–in an important way. Reading stretches a person, but it stretches her slowly. The pace of reading is such that digestion can happen almost as the reading happens–unlike a video that can smack you with information before you get any time to process it. You can put down a book and look up a word in the dictionary (or ask your mom or your BFF what something means) and go right back to where you left off and read on. (Or you can let that word sail over your head and get on with the rest of the book as I so often did in childhood.)

There’s something inherently educational–and self-educational at that (which I think is the best kind of education)–about reading, even when the material is less than great, or simply beyond you.

So I guess that’s me, with a big no on the question of whether or not to rate books for teens. What do you think?

* And no, I’m not so naive as to think that my kids won’t curse behind my back, among their friends, just like I did as a tween/teen. But the Official Family Rule still molded my understanding of cursing in a way I want my children to learn as well.


3 thoughts on “What the Bleep? People want to put profanity ratings on young adult books?

  1. I love this. The idea that reading is a self-paced thing, so kids are less likely to blindsided by something they’re not ready for. Made me think of reading Victorian novels in high school (‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles, ‘Of Human Bondage’…a title which has such different connotations now!) I’d have to flip back a few chapters to figure out why the heroine was worried she might be pregnant.

    Of course, the flip side of ‘warning’ labels is that they draw attention to things and may actually encourage kids to read. Maybe we should do it?

  2. Oh! Good point. Perhaps there should be a shelf in the library with a big sign that says “no teens allowed.”

  3. It shouldn’t even be under discussion, in my opinion. Such cock-eyed reasoning that says it’s okay for kids to vote, get married and learn how to use a hand gun (there she goes again!) but the little dears must be protected from nasty vicious swear words in their reading. YA is young adult, not kindergarten. Just my opinion, of course.

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