I wrote this three years ago, but not for this weblog.
Awhile back we discovered the Little Britches series of books and fell in love with them, so much so that we immediately added them to the bookstore. It wasn’t too long before someone bought the first book and then wrote a very kind email telling me that while he was reading it aloud to his children he was dismayed to find that one of the characters takes the Lord’s name in vain several times. Our customer was disappointed because he had expected that we wouldn’t be selling such a book. I apologized, sent him a refund, told him he could either pass the book along or just destroy it, and added a caution about language to the Little Britches catalog description.
I’m not in the business of establishing guidelines for how other families should shield their children, and so I thought that customer’s expectation was reasonable because he had come by it honestly; nothing in his email suggested that he thought I was wrong or sinful to sell such a book. Neither do I think he is wrong, sinful, prudish, or overly pious in wanting to shield his children from such language. I did feel bad that I had inadvertently put that book in his hands due to the lack of a language warning that was easy to add once I thought of it. And I wondered again, as I have many, many times before and since, whether I have set the boundaries properly for my own children.
(For the record, when I read something like Little Britches aloud I will edit the language on the fly, because I am uncomfortable saying such things aloud, and uncomfortable having my children hear their father say them. But I will generally let my children read books with such language to themselves, expecting them to understand that we don’t approve of such language and don’t use it ourselves.)
One of our favorite book series is The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald, stories about growing up Gentile in Mormon Utah around the turn of the twentieth century. Not only do they paint a delightful picture of frontier life, they are some of the funniest stories I’ve ever read, centering around the escapades of Fitzgerald’s older brother Tom, a boy whose genius generally outstrips his moral sense. Outside of his extreme cleverness there isn’t much to admire about Tom; he is no role model. And the stories are morally neutral towards him. Outrageous behavior is neither applauded nor denounced, just described (to hilarious effect). Sometimes Tom gets his comeuppance, but often he gets away scot-free.
I was always a big fan of Calvin and Hobbes, owning a number of the collections. The older kids have all gone through a phase (sometimes multiple times) when they will sit for hours reading through the strips. When I talk to them about Calvin’s behavior, they seem to be both amused and horrified, laughing at its outrageousness while still having a strong sense that it is outrageous. They do not admire Calvin in any way (or the parents, who are about as dysfunctional as their son).
Right now we are reading aloud two books by Eleanor Frances Lattimore about Little Pear, a six-year-old boy in rural China; it’s for Elizabeth, Jerry, and Benjamin, although the older ones (who have heard the stories before) somehow manage to be in earshot for them. I love these stories for the excellent job they do of relating the tale through a child’s eyes, the sometimes crazy situations taking on a childlike matter-of-factness; e.g. it’s no big deal to Little Pear that he begins walking to the city many miles away, catches a lift from a friendly man who carries him there on his shoulders, then sends him back to his village with a friend who delivers him late at night to his parents.
The kids love them too, and a large part of their delight comes from their astonishment at Little Pear’s disobedience. Even more, they think it’s laughable that the stories usually end with Little Pear’s parents deciding not to spank him because they are so relieved he is OK.
After hearing such admissions I am sure some parents would think I am doing a poor job of shielding my children from bad influences. Maybe I am. I haven’t thought through my reasons for thinking that this kind of exposure to bad behavior in others is harmless, but I don’t think they been done any harm, and suspect it may have done them some good.