It seems appropriate that Katherine Dalton's The Immoral Life of Children should appear on the Front Porch Republic just after a conversation I had with Heather about children's art books.  A friend of hers uses a particular homeschooling curriculum that she likes, but finds herself censoring certain illustrations in the art history sections that she deems inappropriate for elementary-age children.

I happen to disagree with this mother's approach.  Not that there isn't plenty of so-called art that I wouldn't want our grandchildren to see—pretty much the same art that I don't want to see, myself—but I have no objection to art nudes, per se, even for young children.  It may be that the Supreme Court will soon be unable to tell the difference between Michelangelo's David (picture alert) and something indecent, but I can.  :)  However, I don't understand the publisher of that curriculum.  If I think (as I do) that there are works of art which everyone should be able to recognize and appreciate, and if the list happens to include nudes (as it does), nonetheless I can't think of any potentially offensive work that is critical for an elementary-aged child to view.  Any introduction to art necessarily excludes vastly more than it includes; one ought to be able to put together quite an impressive elementary-age art curriculum without tempting mothers to deface the pages of the books.  What bothers me more is that this mother's over-protectiveness seemingly precludes taking her child to an art museum, an omission I think of much graver consequence.

But I hail and commend this woman as a contrast to most of us, who, perhaps for fear of being thought overprotective ourselves, close our eyes to the onslaught of evil our little ones cannot avoid without our help—if at all.  Dalton's article is at the very least a reminder that not being able to do everything is no excuse for not doing what we can.

A few weeks ago a friend’s ten-year-old daughter came home from school, turned to her mother with a frown, and speaking low, so as to stay out of earshot of a younger sibling, asked, “Mom, what does the word ‘contraception’ mean, and what does a sponge have to do with it?”  You would think she’d been talking to a classmate, but no; as it happened she had read this in a book on Ancient Rome....[T]he information came from an Usborne book.  In other words, it came from a book written and designed for children.

[My own fourth-grade daughter] and her father tackle the Jumble word puzzle which lies opposite the comics page in our increasingly thin Louisville Courier-Journal.  This is a new game for them, and it took a day or two for my husband and I to notice that right above ATCATK and YLROLWD lies the “Annie’s Mailbox” column, with its sad parade of grief, trouble and abuse. We cut or fold the page now....I have to scan the covers of the political/literary magazines I take; I ran a permanent marker through a cover headline in the Atlantic the other month, in order to be able to keep the magazine around the house till I’d read it....Women’s and health magazines are typically so indecent that on the rare occasions I have one around I hide it.

[W]ith the exception of certain slurs there is no limit on what is deemed appropriate public language, and that what is appropriate language for adults is assumed to be appropriate for the children who follow in their wake.  News is reported in a way that takes for granted children either aren’t listening or don’t matter.

The definition of adult-appropriate language and topics has changed in the last three or four decades to include words and speculations no one would have discussed before, outside a law court or an exceedingly frank one-gender get-together.  These words leap out from everywhere—the TV, radio, newsstand, book store display, and conversations overheard on the sidewalk....If there is any outlet in our media-saturated culture that isn’t actively working to turn ten-year-olds into case-hardened 22-year-olds, I would like to know what it is.  Around here, Louisville’s classical music station WUOL is the only thing that comes to mind.

I don’t need to listen to news radio when the children are around, and I can bowdlerize the paper, and my children don’t surf the Internet yet.  But books—we all love books, and since my children love to read it has become impossible for me, without becoming a high-octane helicopter parent, to vet all their reading.  The Usborne book is a good example of many grammar school-age books that are unexceptionable except for one or two little ticking bombs of age-inappropriate information, buried on page X.  These clues to adult life show up in fiction, historical fiction, “fun facts” books and history.  I’m aware of some of them, but have missed many others.  As we ascend to the pre-teen and teen list, they will become Legion.

[E]verything can be handled well with good communication—everything except a ten-year-old’s concerned astonishment about what these strangely intimate details of adulthood can possibly mean.  We can try to comfort, but any further explanation at this age will only make things weirder.  There is plenty that even the most curious ten-year-old doesn’t want to know.  Not really, and not yet. Unfortunately, we live in a world of people who are dying to tell her.  We have to counter their words with our own, when what we really want on certain topics is silence.

Whatever my children may or may not be reading, I can see that they must grow up....We will have to talk about moral behavior with a directness my own mother never used with me—because the culture we live in is making all kinds of arguments on the other side, all the time, explicitly, in a way it didn’t when my mother was young.  I can’t protect my children from the ugliness of a lot of history, if they’re going to learn any, or from all the horrors of our current wars and other countries’ conflicts.  I have no illusions I can protect them from pain, death or the knowledge of evil.  I don’t even desire to protect them from everything, since they must learn to stand up and fight on their own, and love the good on their own.  But it is a heck of a thing, to live in a culture that works so actively and in so many thousands of ways, big and small, to undermine every possible standard–even the chastity of children.

Thinking back to the issue of the art nudes reminds me of another time, and another situation, in which children learned about sex, death, and other hard issues of life at an early age, yet which I consider good, not bad:  on the farm.  Context matters.  There is a crucial difference between observing pigs mate and watching a steamy sex scene on television.  To paraphrase Potter Stewart, I may not be able to define the difference adequately, but I know it when I see it.  Sadly, the chances of a modern child seeing the former are about as slim as his chances of avoiding the latter.
Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 12:51 pm | Edit
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