Dear Rabbi Ross:
I’ve been following your advice and letting my kids read at bedtime as opposed to playing electronic devices. Instead of going to the library, my son gets his reading material from his school’s library, which has a pretty decent collection. In any case, I looked at the book my son was reading, and noticed that it was called Big Nate. I glanced at a page and was floored. The content was just disgusting, and the pictures not much better. My husband thinks that I’m being overly sensitive, but I think this is horrible.
Here are my questions: Is it OK for an eight-year-old boy to be reading this? How can schools allow this in their libraries? Am I being overly sensitive?
Thank you for your email. Each of the questions you asked really deserves its own response. Let’s go through them one at a time.
Is it OK for an eight-year-old boy to be reading inappropriate material? Of course not. The real question is what’s considered inappropriate reading material. The answer can’t be quantified in an email. If you live a completely shielded lifestyle, I’m sure that many of the most basic books would be off-limits. If you live in a very modern area and your children have easy access to television and internet, reading material is the least of your problems. It’s the people in between who have a tough call. The below response is for this middle group.
I grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes. My kids read it as well. Although a few of the strips might be considered inappropriate either due to the content or the words, by and large it was a somewhat accurate portrayal of the psyche of an eight-year-old. I remember reading it in the paper when I was young, and now my kids and I laugh together when we read some of them.
A rebbe once told me that it’s completely inappropriate. I asked him what his kids read, and he told me that he had no clue, but it wasn’t Calvin and Hobbes. Personally, I’d rather have my children reading Calvin and Hobbes as opposed to not knowing what they’re reading. I won’t tell you the end of the story, but I can assure you that if he did it all over again, he might have chosen the silliness of Calvin and Hobbes over the material his son chose.
These days, kids are reading a lot of material that’s questionable. There are certain parents who think Harry Potter became dark and morbid as the series progressed, while others think it’s wonderful. The key word here is “parents.” Parents need to know what their kids are reading, and possibly even read it themselves. I know that you’re not in the mood to read 475 pages of a book called Fablehaven, but at the very least glance through it. You can also find reviews online by like-minded people, which can help guide you. Once you know what it’s about, you can make a final determination. Don’t forget to factor in your children’s friends. If they’re all reading a book, it’s not so smart to forbid your child from reading it. He’ll probably read it anyway, either in school or possibly at a friend’s house.
If the book really bothers you, I would suggest being open with your child. You can say, “I read the book you’re reading and I enjoyed it. However, there were parts during which the armadillo was using language we don’t approve of. I’m OK with you reading it, as long as you understand that it’s not the way a ben Torah speaks.”
You mentioned Big Nate in your email. I read part of a Big Nate book along with another absolutely mind-numbing series called Captain Underpants. While the crude humor was specifically aimed at juvenile boys, they seem to enjoy it. I saw a few weird chapters and questionable pictures, but let’s be real: if your child has access to this book, he’s going to read it anyway. You can tell him that you’re not OK with the book in your house. If he takes it out of the yeshiva library, he can read it in school during recess. I’m assuming, of course, that your reading material is 100% appropriate. If you think it’s OK for you to read adult novels but to restrict your kids from reading Big Nate, you’re in for some fun parenting in a few years.
Next question. How can schools allow this? It’s pretty simple. Schools bring in books that get kids reading. Some kids will gladly read a biography on Derek Jeter, and others might enjoy a history book. Most kids want the silly, immature books. If there is a specific book that you feel is horribly inappropriate, simply send your school an email and let them decide themselves.
Many years ago, someone created a comprehensive list for the schools describing which books are appropriate, but it’s not so simple. There is a lot more work that goes into running a school library than people appreciate. All the librarians want is for your son to practice reading. (They also want your son to return his book when he’s done, but that’s a separate issue.)
Are you being overly sensitive? I don’t think so. It’s always scary to watch your children doing things that seem wrong. Nonetheless, sometimes parents need to take a step back and say, “What was I doing when I was eight years old? Was it that much better?” Somehow you survived just fine. Being worried is a large part of parenting. Letting your kids grow is another large part.
Again, if something seems really off in a book they’re reading, by all means tell them they can’t read it. However, remember to choose these battles wisely.
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a well-known rebbe and parenting adviser. To sign up for the weekly emails and read the comments, visit YidParenting.com.