All these choices! - parents and censorship

Heather Rae

Heather Rae lives in Melbourne, Australia. As the busy mother of two young boys, like many modern parents she not only juggles her work commitments, as a teacher, an oral language examiner in German for the Victorian Certificate of Education (senior high school) and a feature article writer, but also tries to steer a course through the maze of modern society for her children.

Recently I watched an old Indiana Jones film with my 5 and 7 year old children. The new Indiana Jones film, regardless of rating, is being promoted through children’s toys and has become the latest Lego obsession. As a result my children were longing to see the earlier films.

As a mother I cringed and wanted to stop the film completely as people were lowered into boiling lava.  Looking around, I realised my 5 year old had long since turned away to his own creative world of Lego figures. The content was simply beyond his level of maturity, understanding and interest.

The 7 year old was genuinely worried - ‘The pretty woman might die...’ But as we watched I was able to reassure him that this was just a pretend story. I explained the difference between fact and fiction. No one was hurt, and film is not the real world. His level of understanding meant he was ready to start grasping the concept of fact-fiction, unlike his younger brother. However he could easily have been terrified had he watched the film in isolation without a supportive adult.

When parents first contemplate unsuitable material for their children, material that ought to be censored, the usual concepts that come to mind include violence, sexually explicit scenes or obscene language. However a simple evening in front of the box can quickly add many more images which make parents feel uncomfortable for young minds: murder, violence, misery and famine on the nightly news. Ultra-skinny models are glamorized. To be successful and rich means you are so much better than the struggling poor. A dare is cool even if it involves bullying, hurting others or damaging property.

At the same time it seems everything is potentially censorable: monsters (even Cookie ones!), witches and wizards; Red Riding Hood who carries a bottle of wine; the Road Runner and The Three Stooges! Where do we draw a line?

In the 1960s many were anxious about television, believing it to have potential to harm. Children would get square eyes and be brainwashed by the box in the corner of every living room. Many still believe that to be the case, but today the Internet has taken over as the modern demon, an apparently boundless medium where anybody can access anything anytime: films, music, photos, limitless information.

No one queries that it is inappropriate for children to be exposed to sexually explicit, violent, pornographic and obscene material, whatever the medium. The question, however, of how parents should protect children from such material elicits as many opinions as stars in the sky.

What role should governments, parents, schools, libraries, publishers and ISP providers take with regard to children? As far as the Internet is concerned, many believe the government should make Internet filters compulsory, but the very worldwide nature of www makes control effectively impossible. Depending on your view, everyone or no one should be responsible for influencing, restricting, controlling or banning material to which children have access.

Perhaps a good starting point for parents is to consider what is appropriate for children and what is not.

John Cox, Deputy Principal of my sons’ school, expresses real concern about children being exposed to violence. “In our society we see kids desensitized to violence at a very young age. Over a period of time it must have an effect on children. That really concerns me.”

Analysis suggests that children will see an horrendous number of murders by the time they are ten years old, a frightening idea given that most of these will be on the news or general exhibition television shows. Alarming previews of the news are often shown immediately after children’s programs like Play School or Sesame Street, with scant regard for the juvenile audience.

Schools sometimes see examples of children play-acting inappropriate actions, sexual or violent, that subsequent questions reveal reflect something they have seen in a film at home. We can only hope that schools are able to interact with parents to reinforce the (Australian) Office of Film and Literature Classification’s ratings system.  With advice and support children can be guided away from accessing such material. At the same time schools need to make their own decisions about what material they recommend or use in the classroom.

Cox explains, “It’s difficult, because what you perceive, what I see to be appropriate, is not necessarily what others see as appropriate, and in the role of school that can be fairly difficult.” This can become a dilemma for schools when material is freely accessible for students. Films that are popular in the general community might be considered unacceptable to sections of the school community. “We try to be guided by what we think is appropriate and by what is in the public domain. Things that are commonly available, and that children would normally have access to, are appropriate to be in the school,” continues Cox.

This does not stop some lobby groups within communities, however, from attempting to influence or censor school libraries and curriculum, with or without the support of others in the community. Many communities across the world have been split about the instruction of creation versus evolution, and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has renewed the battle about the place of magic and witchcraft within children’s literature and culture.

The concept of ‘censorship’ has had ugly connotations at times – mass book burning in Nazi Germany, or extreme religious groups across the world – but ultimately the simple reality is that parents want to protect their children. Most parents will ask themselves at some stage, is it time to say ‘No’ or is it time to relax a little?

For parents floundering with the decision about how to guide and, where necessary, restrict what their children view, it can be reassuring that they do not have to take sole responsibility for every decision for a child. Internet service providers are required to offer Internet filters, and libraries and schools do in fact take a very serious view of assessing material they offer as acceptable for children. However can any external authority adequately replace parental guidance or supervision?

My friend Lyn, a parent of sons and a grandparent, believes parents bear the responsibility to bring up their children with the right values. “They are the ones who should decide what they want for their children. It is not the responsibility of teachers or schools to give children values in the first place.” She explains that she believes parents today rely too much on ‘other people’ to influence their children.

Even in today’s busy world there is nothing more important than setting aside time to spend with children, to share experiences, to talk over suggestions and worries. Being able to watch a film with a child means you can discuss issues and themes that arise. Often if children watch shows in isolation, they get the wrong idea about themes being presented, so watching together may be a good compromise. However you need to be aware of your children, to know how they are going to react to certain things.

Former president of the Australian Children's Book Council Mark Macleod said recently, "One of the roles adults have is to take the ugly side of life and get it into a sense of proportion. Kids need a balance."

Shared time with kids can help them develop a moral framework to base their judgements on.  Parents are able to give their children a balanced view and some perspective when they are confronted with the enormity of everyday current topics such as drugs, terrorism, global threats and worse. At the same time it remains important to assess how appropriate material is for children rather than discussing issues after they have frightened or distressed a child.

From a school perspective, Deputy Principal Cox describes the importance for parents to help children develop the knowledge of what is appropriate or not. “We need to help them build a framework to understand what to do when they are faced with something they don’t understand, want or like. That is part of values programs, the sort of things we do with older kids.” Children need help in learning to make good choices for themselves, because once they reach the stage when they can bypass all the security on their parents’ computer, they can access an incredible amount of material. They can look at whatever they want. And young people will find undesirable material, so it is essential that they have the moral background to base a decision on. When they come across something where they think, “This doesn’t feel right, or this isn’t good” they can decide to stop, or to seek assistance to make a decision in their best interest. This generally happens in secondary school, when children are reaching the stage of exploring and testing their limits.

Another friend, Annie, parent and primary school teacher, suggests parents should screen certain television programs and films, talk to children about potential dangers, but also take an interest in their friends and what they do. The peer group should not be underestimated at any age for its influence and control over decision making. To watch “forbidden material” can become a rite of passage for many young people. Just as forbidden fruit can be so much more appealing, parents need to be careful not to be too rigid in their attitude to some material, yet sensitive to the needs of their children.

The early Star Wars films started with ratings appropriate for children, but as the ‘Dark Side’ was steadily revealed over the years, the suitability of these films for younger children quickly came into question. The ratings moved into the adult categories, yet promotional material was still aimed at children, leaving parents in a censorship dilemma. A parent putting a blanket ban on material regularly watched by their children’s friends may be based on sound reasons, but it can also help build an attitude of resentment and fascination with the unknown and out of reach. Maybe limited exposure in a supportive family environment can lead to a better understanding of difficult concepts.

However, as each of the people I have mentioned reminded me, we should not underestimate the minds of children. Give children credit for knowing what is right. They really are smart enough to work out how to deal with situations and what is not appropriate. As Lyn said, “It seems to me many children are put in cotton wool these days. The world is not full of nice people unfortunately, and no matter how hard some parents try to protect their children, at some point the kids have to understand and deal with that. We just can’t shut out reality.”

For many adults there is a sense of nostalgia for the ‘good old days’, when parents didn’t have to worry about internet stalking, exposure to sex and violence on television, or children having access to pornographic DVDs. Anne of Green Gables did not face foul mouthed street gangs. Lassie was not overtly threatened with brutal murder, and Noddy and Big Ears were in fact “just good friends”.

Or were we simply not as honest about what was or wasn’t available? Did we simply not bring the risks out into the open, so that children were not educated about what they ought to be wary of and the risks around them every day?

Perhaps the most important lesson for parents and children is helping children know whom to trust, to improve the filter between their ears, and to know that they can always click the “back button”, turn off a film or put a book aside to avoid inappropriate content. In this way children can enjoy the world around them safely and without fear.


Work Cited

Mark McLeod, quoted in Edwards, Hannah. "Censorship of Children's Books on the Rise." feature. The Age. April 30 2006. <http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/censors-in-move-on-kids-books/2006/04/29/1146198391643.html>


Heather Rae

Volume 12, Issue 2 The Looking Glass, May/June, 2008

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"Parents and Censorship" © Heather Rae, 2008
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