I originally started writing this with the intention of posting it on our website as a Practical Parenting column, but then I realized that the problem I’m describing actually affects all of us. While the examples I mention have to do with children’s literature, every detail of the culture surrounding us impacts us, often in ways we don’t recognize.
Some years ago, a member of the California synagogue that my husband and I led worried that she was exhibiting tendencies of paranoia. She revealed that she had multiple locks on her apartment door, wouldn’t open the door to accept packages, and was constantly looking over her shoulder on the street. After a bit of discussion, it became clear to us that she lived in a high-crime neighborhood and rather than being paranoid, she was simply being realistic.
Whenever I see the news, women’s magazines, children’s books or many other media, I find myself hyper-sensitive to underlying agendas. In Stalinist Russia, young students were told to place their heads on their desks after praying to God for candy. Not surprisingly, when they lifted their heads their requests had gone unanswered. Then they were told to ask Stalin for candy and once again lay down their heads. Not surprisingly, candy seemed to rain down as their teachers distributed it while the children’s eyes were squeezed shut.
That approach may have lacked subtlety, but the message was clear. In some ways, more delicately delivered messages can be more dangerous. We don’t even realize that our minds are being directed and our beliefs formed.
One of our granddaughters attends a Jewish elementary school. She and her classmates were assigned a book report on a famous personality. The teacher distributed biographies and our eight-year-old brought home a book detailing the accomplishments of Sally Ride, the first American woman to go into space.
Thankfully, our wonderful daughter, the young student’s mother, looked through the book, Who Was Sally Ride? by Megan Stine before her child did. She wasn’t surprised by the feminist emphasis as that was to be expected and relevant to the story. However, the final paragraphs made her send the book back to the teacher with a note explaining that this was not suitable for her daughter or, indeed, for anyone in the school.
Discussing Dr. Ride’s death from cancer in 2012, the author mentions the astronaut’s desire for privacy concerning her illness as well as about her relationship with her long-time friend, Tam O’Shaughnessy. The penultimate paragraph cites the ubiquitous and anonymous “some” who were disappointed that Sally Ride was not open about being homosexual. While the book could have sparked many conversations about science, space, physics and women’s liberation, our daughter did not want to be manipulated into a discussion of homosexuality.
To her distress, the teacher acknowledged (in what seems to me to be an admission of having fallen down on the job) not having read the book and replaced it with a biography of Marie Curie from the same series and by the same author. Alas, this was not necessarily an improvement. On page 84, the reader is introduced to Paul Langevin, the married student of Marie’s dead husband, Pierre. According to Ms. Stine, the scientist probably didn’t intend to fall in love with a married man, but she “followed her heart,” leading to great happiness (followed by difficulties).
Once again, our daughter would have been happy discussing many topics including radium, the Nobel prize, science, and women in science with her eight-year-old. She didn’t want to be led into a discussion of adultery and certainly didn’t appreciate the unstated message conveyed to young people that following one’s heart is just something we do.
In 2002, The New York Times shattered a boundary when they began listing same-sex couples in the wedding section, changing the name of the section to Weddings/Celebrations as same-sex marriage was not yet legal. Today, to most people under a certain age, any hesitation to celebrate these unions seems ridiculous. There is no longer even an agreement that adultery is a reprehensible activity.
My personal moral system on some issues is out of step with today’s dominant culture as well as with a number of things our country has legalized. I think this is true for many of you as well. As a mother, I always monitored my children’s reading. However, I used to be on the lookout for things such as calling friends insulting names or rudeness to parents being presented as normative. The ground has shifted enormously today. Those concerns still matter, but only a few decades ago I was able to assume that biographies were relatively innocent. Parents and teachers today need to be even more vigilantly on guard. In fact, all of us would do well to ask ourselves after everything we read, listen to or watch, “Was there anything in here that tried to nudge me away from what I know is right towards accepting what I know is wrong?”