Rabbi Ross. When putting my kids to bed, I’ve been following your advice and letting them read as opposed to playing electronic devices. Instead of going to the library, my son gets his reading material from his school’s library. My son goes to REDACTED, and they have a pretty decent library. 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 that 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? NAME REDACTED
Thank you for your email. I understand that many of you don’t mind using your names, but frequently there are other people or places that need to give permission. The Yeshiva that you mentioned would not necessarily be OK with having their name mentioned. Furthermore, your son might not be ok with being mentioned since apparently, I have a lot of children reading this column.
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 reading material? Of course not. The real question is, what’s called inappropriate reading material? The answer is really not something that can be quantified in an e-mail. If you live a completely shielded lifestyle, I’m sure that many of the most basic books can be off limits. If you live in a very modern area and your children have easy access to television and/or internet, reading material is the least of your problems. It’s the people in between that 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 & 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 & 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 & Hobbes over the material his son chose.
These days, kids are reading a lot of material that’s questionable. There are certain parents that think Harry Potter became dark and morbid as the series ended, 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 of reading 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 probably 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 that 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 E-mail. I read part of a Big Nate 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 your kids can’t read 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 e-mail and let them decide themselves.
Many years ago, someone created a comprehensive list for the schools describing which books are appropriate, but it’s really not so simple. There is a lot more work that goes into running a school library then 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.
Have a Great Shabbos!
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a Rebbe and has been working with parents and kids for many years. You can read more about him in the "about" section.