The Value of Understanding Parents


So here’s a story.

When I was in sixth or seventh grade, the biggest excitement of the year, easily, without a doubt was Judy Blume’s Forever.  

You know. THE SEX BOOK.

Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of it. You have. Don’t try that with me. You know what it is. You read it, secretly, right around the time you read Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) and Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret, and of course Flowers in the Attic.

My friends and I passed around Forever that year. It went from person to person pretty quickly, because we each probably read it in one night, under the covers, eager to see what THE SEX BOOK was all about. (At least I did. No shame here.)

I wasn’t about to go home and wave it around, and be like, “Hey! Mom! Look what I got! Judy Blume’s sex book!”

Now, normally, I was allowed to read whatever I wanted. My parents were pretty tolerant. At least, my mom always was. She let me take books out and never gave me the third degree. My dad was probably like, “Oh, Annabelle’s got her nose in a book again. Shocker.” They all looked the same to him.

But the one day – joy of joys, o happy day – when it was finally my turn to bring home Forever, you know, THE SEX BOOK, my mom suddenly took an interest in what I was reading.

I mean, let’s be frank here. What kind of mother is going to see her twelve-year-old – her rather naive twelve-year-old at an all-girls’ school – reading THE SEX BOOK and not have alarm bells go off in her head?

So my mom picked up the book, read the front, read the back, flipped through it (I’m sure it opened up right to page 85… you know, where we and Katherine meet Ralph) and opened it to the first page. The first line in Forever is:

Sybil Davison has a genius I.Q. and has been laid by at least six different guys.

I’m pretty sure there was a raised eyebrow – my mom was, and still is, the master of the raised eyebrow to convey all sorts of emotions – and she asked me if I knew what that meant.

If I remember correctly, I replied along the lines of “Um, it means she had sex?” (Definitely with the question mark at the end. I had no idea, honestly). And that, I figured, would be the sum total of my experience with THE SEX BOOK, and everyone else would have read it, and they would all be worldly and knowledgeable, and I would still be picking up The Baby-Sitters Club, trapped forever in a world where boys were mysterious and babysitting was the height of awesomeness. (I’m 34, and both are still true. But I digress.)

But then my mom did something really awesome.

She just sort of closed her eyes for a second, in a Lord-give-me-strength-why-is-my-little-baby-reading-smut kind of way, and handed the book back to me, and told me that if I had any questions that I should come to her and she would answer them for me.

Not gonna lie: I was completely floored. As I said, she’d never censored me before, and she had always been clear that I could talk to her about all “the girl stuff” (which I hadn’t, because,  come on, I had friends to ask about that), but we were in uncharted waters here. This was a book with pretty explicit sexual content. I hadn’t even read the book yet, but based on what I heard, there was all kinds of scary/great stuff to learn about. Sex! Teenagers! The Pill! Wow! Take that, Ann M. Martin!

I read the book, and didn’t understand a lot of it, and, as it turned out, didn’t ask my mom any questions, but I felt a little older. A little more mature. I had learned an important fact. Penises had names. That would, I have no doubt, be valuable knowledge as I navigated the wild world of men.

The reason I’m recounting this story is to ask all of you out there about not only your first experience with more grownup books, but how your relevant adults reacted. I have a friend who has taken a complete hands-off approach to what her 14-year-old reads. I have a friend who pre-reads books before she lets her tween daughter read them. And I have yet another friend who has put her foot down and refuses to let her tween daughter read anything even remotely PG-rated.

At what point do we censor or not? Or ask lots of questions? Or prohibit? Or declare ourselves neutral (and open or closed) parties?

(P.S.: Thanks for being so understanding, Mom.)


3 responses »

  1. Interesting question, especially as an Elementary School Librarian… but for my own kids I’ve let them read and we talk – had a very panicky moment when in 4th grade my daughter asked “Mom, what’s a virgin?” uh – stall stall – “Why do you want to know?” (in my head all the advice of ask your child questions to see what he/she knows, answer only what they ask, they may not need the full sex talk yet..) She was re-reading one of the Tamora Pierce books, maybe Protector of the Small, and she answered “They are sacrificing them in my book” oh ok I can deal with that… “a virgin is a girl who has not had a baby was my cop out answer, which then I had to amend to include boys who haven’t had babies as well. And eventually got out – actually it would be someone who has not had sex.”
    She didn’t flinch and said “ok” end of conservation.

    But it proved to me what I had long thought, if they are not ready, much of the sex we worry about in books goes over their heads. She had read that book and others like it many times and it had just occurred to her to ask. By others like it I would include most of the fantasy “coming of age” books out there, but strangely not Harry Potter – that scared her for a long time. Did love it once she read it.

    What I tell parent who are upset about the things their kids are reading, is if I limit the children’s access it is called Censoring and is a bad thing. If they limit their child’s reading it is called parenting and is a good thing. We each have to make our choices, and they are hard choices. The only trouble comes when we try to impose our choices on everyone else’s kids.

    I did limit what they could watch as young kids, and still limit how much time they spend watching screens (and we included computers in that) – as I think visual images are much harder for the child to ignore if they are not ready for the concept. (so no they didn’t watch much with racy content, but they could read it all they wanted).

    While I was taking YA LIT in grad school I had to reread many books, and read some that were new to me, things have changed in the last 30 years to say the least! But that was the semester we lived in France and they were books in English so my kids read many of them – or tried. Some, like Forever they were not interested in (she would have been in 3rd grade, he in 1st). She did read some Philip K Dick and talked that one over with Dad a lot as it was hard to understand. My husband read Forever that year as well, and we agreed that if need be we’d hand it to our kids when they needed to read it! We did give her a copy of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret when she hit puberty. I’ll have to ask her if she’s ever read Forever – she’s about to turn 18.

  2. Great reply, Chrissie – I love, particularly, the difference between parenting and censoring. I think there’s a lot that goes over kids’ heads – and we look at the books as we would see them, not as a child/tween/teen would see them. What we might panic about is something that they might do just as your daughter did, just sort of shrug and go “Oh, okay.”

    I think talking about content with kids and being open to their follow-up questions are two major, major points in adults’ favor. Kids want adult approval, and not only allowing them to read, but offering to chat with them about it validates that.

  3. Pingback: Miscellany | LibrariAnnabelle's Blog

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