The Immoral Life of Children

By Katherine Dalton for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

three girlsA 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.  Since the school’s fourth grade bookshelf includes a number of colorfully illustrated reference books on the period, her mortified teacher’s first thought was that one of these adult books was the source.  It wasn’t; the information came from an Usborne book.  In other words, it came from a book written and designed for children.

It is not very original of either this mother or me to complain that our children are under siege, but they are, and some days the pervasiveness of it seems remarkable.

I have fourth grader myself, who loves to read and loves words, so many nights now she 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.

This child would like to read parts of the rest of the paper also, but since the front page may feature a large colored photograph of people exploded by a suicide bomber, or the murder of a child, or a personal assault highlighted in large type, some days she can’t.  (I don’t complain that the paper reports bad news, but I do object to the increasingly tabloid fashion in which some stories are covered.)  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.  I didn’t want to be asked what “gay sex” is.  Women’s and health magazines are typically so indecent that on the rare occasions I have one around I hide it.

Once you start worrying about earfuls for little pitchers you find the words you long to avoid are blazoned and trumpeted everywhere.  Two weeks after the school book revelation, the same child was in a locally owned coffee shop, where, in between sips of hot chocolate, she asked her mother what “rape” meant.  Each table at the shop sports a little rolodex of laminated information cards, and there, along with cards telling about shade grown coffee and Louisville’s recycling efforts, was one on a women’s crisis shelter which the shop owners support.

This is a little thing, but it indicates an assumption made everywhere:  that with 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, and this is as true for the “highbrow” radio on NPR as it is for the “lowbrow” so-called conservative TV shows.  This is tolerable when your child is two, or even six, and has no idea what some of these words mean, and it’s tolerable I suppose when the child is 17 and knows what 17-year-olds are going to know these days.  But it’s pretty hard to take with a fourth-grader, who is old enough to understand, but too young to bear the burden of this knowledge.

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.  I can remember when it was a big deal for a family newsmagazine like Time to run a cover story on STDs, but that was at least twenty-five years ago.  I am also old enough to remember when the word “rape” would not have been said in public, and certainly not used casually as a metaphor.  Time was when no one, certainly not a lady, would have begun a column with the story I began with above, because it is too indelicate (I am not old enough for that).  But we are not able to be ladies anymore, and children are not allowed to be children.  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.

Fortunately for me I am not a news media addict.  I like quiet, and I hate television.  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.

The answer, but of course!, is to foster open communication with your children, because everything 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.  And talk as families will, children differ in their inclinations toward privacy and worry, and parents in their sensitivity and haplessness.  I know most of what is going on in the head of one of my children; very little of what truly is felt by the other.  We discuss some of the books they read as it is, for the fun of the discussion, and when the requests to read Pulliam and the Twilight series come, as they will, then we may talk about why we avoid some books for a good while, or entirely.  (Not having read either series yet, I don’t know how I will feel about them.)  Maybe that talk will be enough to forestall sneaking, but I can’t be sure. I am sure that with every publishing year which passes there will be more to sneak, and more we simply stumble upon.

Whatever my children may or may not be reading, I can see that they must grow up.  I can see the Big Conversation visible on the horizon for my eldest, and I know that I cannot assume my standards will become her standards by osmosis.  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.

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