Amy Pybus: You can’t hide what’s ugly from children

Last modified: Friday, February 14, 2014
EASTHAMPTON — I have enjoyed reading the lively debate over the placement of “Tintin” books at the Amherst library and considering valid points on both sides.

I wasn’t surprised the library board chose not to move the books. Librarians are well trained for the complexities of their job and censorship is a slippery slope no matter whose “side” you’re on.

I’m impressed by how hard librarians work to keep up with the changing times of information sharing, technology, privacy and freedom of speech on the Internet. They are concerned with how best to serve their clientele while upholding the rights of all citizens.

One reader pointed out that the “Tintin” movie was appealing without being racist, which is true, but kids have been interested in the “Tintin” books for a long time. I first encountered them when I was working in a classroom where the boys were all taking turns reading them. I assume the teacher had screened out the most offensive ones, as I don’t recall seeing anything inappropriate.

Images from the books reproduced in the Gazette were indeed offensive — and I can see why parents would feel strongly about protecting their children. They should, until the child is old enough to understand and have a discussion about the meaning of such images.

At the same time, we should acknowledge that this learning begins at a much earlier age than is commonly believed. I teach toddlers every day about right and wrong, and they get it. You just hurt your friend, that’s not OK. It’s OK to be angry, but channel your feelings in a healthy way. Let’s talk about it and see how we can fix it.

Often the best way to handle an uncomfortable situation with a young child is to talk to them about it. They will face plenty of uncomfortable situations in life.

In years of writing for the Gazette, I’ve found myself embroiled in issues of censorship and racism, once over my take on “The Hunger Games.” I felt parents should read the books and decide when their kids would be ready for them. My sons weren’t ready at the time (their choice), but have since read the first book and seen both movies. This rule could apply to the “Tintin” books as well.

We all have different tastes and sensitivity levels. I grew up loving the “Lord of the Rings” books and have re-read them throughout my life, but I still can’t stand to look at the orcs in the movie, or the endless battle scenes my kids watch over and over.

I was appalled when the boys became obsessed with professional wrestling. When I objected to them watching such violence, my son looked at me with concern and said, “You do know it’s fake, right?” That phase has come and gone and I’ve yet to see either of my kids beat somebody over the head with a chair.

Parents like to think we can hide all the ugly from our children. As another letter-writer pointed out, it’s more pervasive than ever. As much as we would like to stem the tide, we can’t. Our kids are going to see the ugly.

Racism is in the world. Meanness is in the world. The most crucial thing we can do is teach our children how to handle these things, and how best to protect themselves.

For parents in the “age of ugly,” everything is a teachable moment. Shutting down the discussion because it’s too icky is not the way to go.

Instead we need to be open to discussion of any topic at any time and adjust our language and explanation. Young children can understand there are bad things in the world but we have ways of protecting ourselves, and we always hope that things will get better. How can we work for that? Kids love to be heroes. If we speak to them honestly and answer their questions without becoming upset, they will learn that they don’t need to fear ugly things.

They learn from watching us. A parent who disparages someone else teaches their child it’s OK to disparage. A parent who acts like a maniac at a sporting event teaches his or her child it’s OK to dominate and bully instead of being a good sport. A parent who models compassion, openness, honesty and kindness — well, what do you think their child will learn?

Long ago we bought the “Looney Tunes Golden Collection” for our kids, to share the old Bugs Bunny classics. When we started the first DVD I was surprised to see an introduction by Whoopi Goldberg, in which she addressed the occasional racist jokes and stereotypes found in the old cartoons.

She said this: “These jokes were wrong then and they are wrong today. But removing these inexcusable images and jokes ... would be the same as saying they never existed. They accurately reflect a part of our history that cannot and should not be ignored ... we present them here for their enduring entertainment value.” I agree. A lot of what happens in the world needs explanation, and this doesn’t end as our kids get older.

Amy Pybus of Easthampton writes on family life issues on the second Thursday of the month. She can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com and blogs at www.sittingonthebaby.com.