A couple of my co-workers don’t like it when I start to flip through a children’s book. “Oh no,” one has taken to saying whenever I crack one open. “You’re not going to ruin that one for me. I don’t want to hear it.” Another helpfully handed me a book (adult non-fiction) about clouds. “Here’s something uplifting for you to read.”
A new co-worker looked at me, when I explained this blog to her and said, “But seriously, do you think kids are picking up on those messages?” She has a lovely almost school-aged daughter.
“No,” I replied. “That’s kinda the point.”
And it is. We absorb messages from our subcultures, and from the dominant culture. Perhaps our subculture aspires to change or subvert the dominant culture. Perhaps our subculture is oppressed by dominant culture. Perhaps we’re so immersed in dominant culture (or dominant culture is so accepting of our subculture) we don’t even notice we belong to subculture(s).
But wait! one argument goes, doesn’t culture reflect the ideas and beliefs of the people?
Well, yes. It goes both ways.
But, for now, I want to focus on the absorption of cultural messages.
When a children’s book normalizes calling someone (or something) “crazy,” this is problematic because it stigmatizes people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. When a children’s book indicates it’s okay for two bullies to gang up on others, it normalizes a culture of violence (or rape culture). When a children’s book relies on stereotypical images of masculinity or femininity, it makes it difficult for children to recognize other versions of performing masculinity or femininity as okay. You’ve seen some of these examples on this blog already. The list is long, and this is by no means exhaustive.
But wait! isn’t there just such a thing as being too politically correct?
Ah, the PC-police card.
As a person who pretty much hit all the major points of the privilege jackpot (as I’ve heard someone else phrase it), I’d argue that when someone is like “oh no, PC police,” they’re able to do so because they (likely) recognize their privilege is being checked. The people in my life I’ve heard this from have generally also lucked into very privileged lives and fail/choose not to recognize that this privilege is what they feel like is being threatened when someone else asks for respect/equality for a marginalized group.
Often, when I correct these people, I hear arguments like “but if only they worked harder,” or “that’s a choice they’re making,” or “stereotypes exist for a reason,” or “but it’s against the Bible,” or any number of things (I encourage you to add your favorites in the comments section). Recently, I asked someone I love not to refer to people they were frustrated with as “idiots.” This was followed by silence and a change of topic. This is the other reaction I get frequently. I’m frustrated by this type of response because I don’t know if the person has heard me, or if they now feel chided, or if they’re not sure why I’m asking them to use kinder language.
But what does this have to do with children’s books?
In short: everything. The books we choose to read to children — and the discussions we do or don’t have with them about the messages in these books is dependent on a lot of factors including: income, proximity to a library, parental/teacher time, the books we read as children, advertising by publishers, our social norms and values, our relationship to the child (I, for instance, as an educator and someone who works in a place where people read books have a different relationship with the children I encounter than a parent or full-time teacher or relative), and many others.
The messages that exist in these texts (and no, I don’t think that each author specifically thinks “hm, I’m going to write a lovely book about cops so that children think cops are always their friends!” or “you know what would be a brilliant topic for a kids book? Rape culture and how great it is!” These authors exist in the same culture we do. They’ve had the opportunity to internalize cultural messages and norms. They’re (I believe) looking to tell a good story. They’re looking to entertain or help children become enthusiastic about learning or to impart a moral (erhm, of course typically one that’s accepted by the dominant culture) they believe is strong and relevant for children to learn.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t critique them. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start discussions — either with children or with other adults — about the messages being imparted. This doesn’t mean we can’t start to ask for different messages.