family, Parenting, reading, Young Adult fiction

On The Subject of Desensitization

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I’ve mentioned how I feel about this topic before. But lately it’s really been bothering me. And apparently it is not just me, as there are a lot of reviews popping up around the online world regarding extreme violence and inappropriate content in books aimed at younger readers.

In the past year, I’ve come across a long list (we’re talking a whole arm here) of novels marketed as YA that I would completely and utterly not let my 14-year-old son read. (Not until he’s 18, because then he’s allowed to make more of his own decisions about this sort of thing.) And honestly, as a parent, I’m really concerned that so many teenagers are reading them. I know a lot of college students and twenty-something adults do read YA as well, and that bothers me a lot less, because if this sort of content is intended for people over 17, then that’s a different matter.

But, seriously, what kind of society do we live in when we, mothers and fathers wanting to protect our children, see something labeled as “Young Adult” or “Juvenile,” and don’t check it out ourselves? And don’t give me the argument of, “Well, it passed the ratings board, so it must be fine.” IT MIGHT NOT BE. Do your own research, folks.

Anyway, so onto my major discussion issue for today: What sort of lessons are we instilling in our culture, our families, our future, when we act like gratuitous violence and sex in our entertainment is considered perfectly acceptable for 11-year-olds to stumble across?

And then when people bring up the very reasonable idea that this type of thing really isn’t cool, we’re called “too sensitive” or “overly emotional” and told to “get a grip” and “stop being such a wuss.”

Well, then, I’m a self-declared sensitive, emotional wuss — and I DON’T CARE what the naysayers think.

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And I truly feel I am not a prude for suggesting this is a healthy cultural approach.

I am not one for censorship. Seriously, I’m not. But I firmly believe there need to be stricter social guidelines — particularly around children — on many of these issues.

Remember when we were young (I remember when the Berlin Wall came down; use that as your rule of thumb for guessing my age), and on Friday nights we’d be allowed to stay up and watch something like an old James Bond movie, back when the sexual references were mostly discreet, the language was reserved, and the violence was so clearly stunt men overdramatically collapsing onto cardboard boxes? And after we went to bed, moms and dads would watch, say, Lethal Weapon, which would, by today’s standards, be rather tame?

So, this is the crux of my biscuit: I firmly believe we need to re-evaluate our standards.

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I am an adult; I am very aware of the horrors the real world knows. But choosing to be polite is far from the same as being ignorant. Wanting to keep my 3-year-old innocent a little longer is not overprotective parenting.

I support teenagers being informed. I do not support them becoming desensitized.

If we’re supposed to be teaching our kids to love everybody, then why are we also suggesting that the best way to deal with a disagreement is to blow up somebody’s house with fancy special effects (and stream it live)?

What’s the point of encouraging kids to wait until marriage for certain levels of physical intimacy, and then publish novels — sold next to the Nintendo games — that include graphic descriptions of such actions (between unmarried 16-year-olds)?

We are sending extremely mixed messages to the next generation. And we need to knock it off.

Having a YA novel with violence in it for context — and carefully selecting how we describe the violence — is not in itself bad. For example, what if part of the point of the story covers terrorism, war, a car accident, or a super-spy like Jason Bourne? And if I’m watching a medical drama like Grey’s Anatomy, I don’t mind fake human innards on an operating table, because the show is about surgeons. But would I recommend a 3rd grader sit down and watch Grey’s Anatomy with me? Dear God, no.

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We need to be disturbed when we drive past a car accident where somebody may be seriously injured. We need to dive under the covers while trying to watch Pet Semetary. (By the way, I don’t watch horror, anyway.) We should be concerned (and not laugh) when a 5-year-old repeats the f-word.

I am becoming more aware that many people who should be disturbed by these things are not. And that disturbs me. When we read a book or see a movie that has a scene graphically depicting the violent death of a child or animal, we need to be angry, heartbroken, and questioning why the writers/directors found it necessary to include that level of detail.

It’s why we root for the Winchester brothers in Supernatural, who are definitely not saints. It’s why we designate James Bond as the good guy — because, while flawed, he certainly is not an evil villain. Why we support Jason Bourne beating up a bunch of guys on his way to find the truth — because his ultimate goal is not pure, malicious vengeance.

Why, when faced with the ultimate Time Lord question, to go back and kill Hitler as a schoolboy, White Fang and I concretely say no — because what if, just this once, he turns out to be good?

It’s why I will no longer watch R-rated movies, or read R-rated novels. Why I am not letting my children near them. Why I am teaching them to respect and love people who don’t look like them, or make choices we may not agree with.

It’s why I won’t support (financially or otherwise) authors that are promoting messages distinctly opposite from this.

And why I will still keep them in my prayers.

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