There’s been lots of talk lately about what’s “appropriate” for YA. Alice over at Arctic Books recently wrote a post asking How Do You Define YA? and it really got me thinking. You see, my thoughts on the topic are complicated. As a mom of a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old, I find my stance on this more conservative than I would have expected when I was younger. My kids are at the young end of the YA spectrum, and I would honestly balk at handing them a lot of the YA books I’ve read. (And I certainly wouldn’t want them reading some of the books that people have been debating about whether they’re YA or not: books like Nevernight, which I reviewed earlier this week – click on the link to read that review and see my thoughts on the content.)
Neither of my kids are really mature enough to handle a lot of “adult” content. So, as of right now, we often stick to MG books or YA books that I’ve already read. (Luckily, I’ve read a lot of them, so this doesn’t limit us as much as it could.)
But I’ve seen a lot of buzz about this topic on Twitter. About how parents should allow their kids to read anything that’s within their reading abilities and how not allowing them to do this is censorship. I have to raise my eyebrows at this. My kids are advanced readers – if I just went by their reading abilities, they could’ve been reading YA or even adult books years ago. Certainly, reading ability isn’t the only factor.
So, then other people say that kids should be able to decide for themselves what they’re ready for. But, again, I think that depends on maturity – I can tell you right now that my 14-year-old son doesn’t always make the most mature decisions. He thinks he knows everything (at least in the moment – often afterwards he’ll admit when he was in over his head), but he’s still a kid. His judgment isn’t necessarily the best. (I’d actually be more apt to trust my 12-year-old to make good judgments about what she’s ready for – she’s a lot more level-headed.) As a parent, my job is to help my kids navigate what’s best for them – I don’t let them make all of those decisions, and I don’t think I should. There’s no way anyone’s going to make me feel bad about that. (For the record, my kids haven’t really been asking me to read things that I don’t approve of, so this is mostly hypothetical at this point – maybe I made my son wait a little longer to read The Hunger Games than some of his friends, but that’s about the extent of it.)
One thing that has really got me thinking, though, is something I’ve seen as a topic of discussion a lot – why is it that sex is often seen as more objectionable than violence in books? Many people see this as being incredibly hypocritical – that someone would have an issue with their child reading a sex scene, but wouldn’t mind a violent scene (even where someone is killed) nearly as much. I’ll admit that this is true for me – like I said, my son has read The Hunger Games, which is pretty violent, but he’s only read a couple of books that involved sex at all (and the sex was pretty glossed over for the most part).
So, I started asking myself, is there a difference or am I just being hypocritical?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I do think there’s a tangible difference between violence and (explicit) sex in books.
Let me put it to you like this: When was the last time you read a violent scene in a book and you felt like punching someone afterwards? Or the last time you read a book where someone was murdered and you felt the urge to kill someone too? I’m going to take a wild guess here and assume that everyone’s answers to these questions is “never” (especially for that second one!).
BUT when was the last time you read a book with an explicit sex scene and felt a little (or a lot) turned on? Most of us would answer this question a bit differently, right?
Our brains (and our bodies) respond to sex in books differently than they respond to violence. Reading a violent scene doesn’t typically make a person feel particularly violent, but reading a sex scene often makes the reader feel sexually aroused. (Heck, that’s the whole draw of erotica – most people aren’t reading those books for the fascinating plots but for the pleasure of being turned on).
In early adolescence, sexual urges can already be a little overwhelming and confusing – I don’t think I need to throw in the feelings generated by reading sexually explicit books to make things even more complicated. This is my choice for my kids at this time – as they mature, that choice will inevitably evolve, but I’m not leaving it completely up to them to decide – it’s a decision we’ll make together as situations arise.
Now I’m not naive – I know that teens (even younger teens) are already dealing with hormonal issues that they’re figuring out how to navigate. And books that explore sex in a healthy and positive way might even help them navigate some of those issues. But I’m not ready to just let my kids go out and read anything and everything while I simply hope that they’re only picking up on the positive messages and filtering out the negative ones. And I’ve honestly read a lot of YA books that push messages about things like casual sex (or other issues, like casual drug use) that I don’t agree with. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to forbid my kids from ever reading those books, but I’m certainly going to be more careful about when and how my kids are exposed to them (and we’ll be discussing them – much to my kids’ chagrin).
In the end, I guess I feel a little resentful when I see people insisting that me making these types of choices for my children is censorship. (Especially when I note that most of the people dishing out these sorts of opinions don’t have young teens of their own.) I see it as part of parenting – almost no one would advocate letting your kids do whatever they want whenever they “feel ready” to do it. In most areas, we agree that kids aren’t mature enough to make all of their own decisions, so why should it be any different when it comes to reading? Of course, when they’re older teens they’ll have more freedom to decide these things for themselves, but by then I hope that I’ll have set a solid framework for them so that they can take the messages the world is bombarding them with and decide which ones they want to apply and which ones they want to ignore. At least that’s the hope …