Parents’ and schools’ responsibility to young readers

So I received an email through my Rated Reads site, asking me for guidance on resources that can provide information about content in books for younger readers. It got me thinking again about the place for parental involvement and potential restrictions on books for elementary-school students. I suppose I’m a little late to the game in terms of this topic because Banned Books Week was over a month ago, but here goes anyway.

Before I say anything else, I’d like to make clear that I am against “censorship” in general (let me restrict this discussion purely to books). That entails actually suppressing and forbidding the viewing or use of particular passages or entire books. It’s not my place to decide what kind of content should be completely forbidden, and it just sets a bad precedent. I wouldn’t want someone else to have the power to forbid what is viewable by me or my family members.

So while I am against forbidding things entirely to most readers, parents and educators do have a responsibility to young children to make sure they read material that is appropriate for them. Even then, I hesitate to ban books entirely because, while I wouldn’t want a child getting hold of soft porn, for example, I wouldn’t agree with those people who were eager to ban Harry Potter because of its theme of magic.

What I am a proponent of is information. That’s why I started Rated Reads, a modest effort though it is. But at least it’s something. We have nearly 1,000 books featured with content ratings and moderately detailed paragraphs explaining what kind of potentially objectionable content is in each book. I firmly believe that each reader and, in the case of children, each parent should be able to have resources to find information that will allow him or her to make a decision.

I would like to think that books that are selected for a children’s library are going to be appropriate for young readers and acceptable to most parents, both in thematic content and possible sex, violence, or bad language. But young readers who are ready for young adult books, for instance, deserve to not be shocked by what they read or to have their parents be shocked. There are a lot of great young adult books that are fine for younger readers, that don’t have strong language or detailed violence or sex scenes. But there are just as many that I wouldn’t want my younger kids reading.

Since elementary schools generally have limited space, I think it would be wisest to select books that will be most age appropriate and least objectionable to parents. But at the same time, there may be a few YA books that would be great reads, in terms of stimulating thought on various topics, that might be nice picks for those libraries. And some of those might have some violence or other scenes that could be objectionable to parents or their kids. In these cases, it seems it would be particularly smart for everyone to include a kind of electronic ping with further information for the student and her parent when it comes to checkout time. This would allow parents to give a yea or nay to their child reading that book; a note could be sent home before the book is approved for checkout, providing details about why that book could be a poor choice, including themes, sex, violence, and language.

Now there are going to be some parents who are very careful about using this system, saying no to some books and yes to others based on their consideration of the information provided; there are definitely going to be other parents who simply won’t care. And that is their business. If I were that child’s teacher, or a fellow parent, I might not agree with those parents’ decision, but it wouldn’t be my responsibility to override or actively disagree in some other way. As long as a parent hasn’t been declared unfit, it is his or her responsibility to make decisions regarding his child, and that needs to be respected.

But there is no doubt in my mind that more information should be available so readers and parents of readers can make more informed decisions. I don’t think it’s always possible or practical for a parent to read every book a child would like to read, becoming the child’s first reader. We just need more information. Again, that’s why I’m doing Rated Reads. But I’d love to see more coming direct from publishers or something similar (I suppose that’s kind of another topic, but in brief, I don’t see why it would be so hard for the editor to include a brief description that states how much language or sex or violence is in it…). There’s simply not enough information available about most books.

So. What are your thoughts? Do schools sometimes need to be more cautious about what they choose to stock in their elementary libraries? Do parents need more information, and how should it be provided? And what about junior highs/middle schools and high schools?

There’s more lying on Pinterest than in any political campaign

So I have enjoyed Pinterest quite a bit since I decided to sign up and start using it earlier this year. It’s definitely handy-dandy for lots of things. My youngest even knows that if we’re trying a new recipe, it’s most likely from Pinterest. I think, like a lot of other Pinterest users, I use the site for recipes, laughs, and just useful ideas about all kinds of things.

Yes, it is delicious. But NOT 50 calories; no, it’s 500.

But what has really gotten my goat over the months is noticing how much of it is just blatantly false. This is the case with “no-calorie” recipes of various kinds and with “fitspiration” pins. A few examples: the 50-calorie shake. The photo shows a delectable-looking glass filled with a thick, creamy chocolate shake. It always says “50 calorie shake” underneath the photo. I have now seen this repinned by friends at least four or five times. Every time I can’t help but comment on it. Because the truth is that the shake (if the whole recipe is imbibed) is 496 calories. Nearly 500. Not 50. If one wanted to have a 50-calorie version of this shake, that person would have to get out a shot glass, because she’d only be able to drink about 2 ounces. The original site doesn’t say anything about it being “diet” or low-calorie; it’s just a healthier way to have a “shake” than going to an ice-cream shop.

There’s also the “no-calorie slushie.” The photo shows a glass with the final product, and there’s pictures of bananas and strawberries. If anyone were to think about it for just a second, she would know that bananas and strawberries HAVE CALORIES. The blogger admits that “her diet plan” doesn’t count fresh fruit or vegetables, but for those of us who do count everything (which I certainly think is a wise move), it’s about 250 calories. I’m thinking there’s a big difference between NO calories and 250. In fact, if one were to drink that no-calorie slushie every day without changing her diet in other ways, she’d gain half a pound a week.

I think I’ve already mentioned the “fitspiration” pins. Beauty Redefined writes a fab blog post about those. Here’s the thing: it’s great to motivate yourself if you’re trying to take better care of your body by eating better and exercising. But the pins that show a ridiculously thin naked midsection with hip bones protruding, for example, are not going to help anybody. They tend to say “all you have to do to get these abs is follow this plan….” Honestly, I don’t care how much I worked my abs, I would never look like that. I’d also have to cut my calories to less than 1000 per day (not healthy) and get plastic surgery to get rid of the extra skin and the stretch marks to look like that. Can we sit back for a moment here and say, OK, I’d like to get healthier, but repinning this ridiculous photo isn’t going to help me or anyone?

Yep. All lies. Why is it that we perpetuate them? I personally don’t repin these. I just don’t. If the recipe looks tasty and I’d like to try it, then I’ll repin it and give it an accurate title and caption: “fruity slushie,” for instance, or “protein-packed shake.” And even if I would like the tips for exercise, I just flatly refuse to repin those photos of tiny midsections. I’m not gonna do it. I don’t want to send the message out to my friends that image is paramount and flat abs are a holy grail. I don’t want my wonderfully normal friends to feel worried about their abs. Why should they? I also tend to make comments when friends pin some of these, just to correct the erroneous notions that are being sent along via the ever-so-simple pin. I imagine they are annoyed by me. Oh well.

So I ask: if you’re a Pinterest user, are you going to breezily send the lies along for hundreds of other pinners to see, or are you going to stop them in their tracks? When you see a claim that seems “too good to be true,” it most likely is. Think about it for a second. Do some quick calculations. Go to the original post. Do something, but just don’t send it on!

Everyone can give something

Whew! It has been quite a week in this country. The election seems to have brought out the worst in everyone, just before the vote and since the results were announced. I’ve been pondering on several topics connected to what has gone on and what people have talked about (or yelled about or written about in scathing words), and one has been the great divide in how people see wealth, or the lack of it. I have observed a lot of heated discussions about the rich, the poor, and what it means for individuals and the government to provide aid to the poor (thereby “taking” from the rich or even the middle class in the form of higher taxes).

What I’ve thought about is that everyone can give of their time and talents, whether they have money to spare or not. Money is not the only resource we all have. Even the poor can give of who they are and what they’re good at.

I live in California, where there are particularly bad problems with the economy, the state budget, and social programs, particularly education. I’ve observed in just the past four years while I’ve lived here most recently just how much education has suffered. Class sizes have gotten larger and larger, and schools’ budgets have gotten smaller. At the same time, I’ve been encouraged to see individuals doing all they can to help schools by just giving of their time. I have four children, one in high school, one in middle school, and two in elementary. My youngest is in half-day kindergarten. The teacher, as most do, asked through notes home if any parents could help out in the classroom. Given that I volunteer in a variety of capacities and write and do editing (part time, the only thing for which I earn any money) out of my home, I can’t give a lot of time to one area, but I can try to do something. So I told the teacher I could help out once a month. I did that the first time a few weeks ago, sitting in the back of the class and helping students with some projects. I watched the teacher manage a huge class of 30 5-year-olds. THAT is a huge job, let me tell you. I also watched one other parent sit at a table and go through all of the children’s daily folders and check that homework was done and everything was in order. She relayed the necessary information to the teacher. I was amazed to learn that this parent is there EVERY DAY, for the whole 3 1/2 hours the students are in the classroom. She volunteers that much of her time. And believe me, it definitely looked as if the teacher would have a hard time doing without her. She was pretty busy with that class FULL of little kids.

Not everyone can give that much of their time. But everyone can do something. Giving of ourselves makes us truly human, in all the best ways, I think. And it brings such a sense of satisfaction to us, while we’re providing needed help to others. It’s important for each of us to give of ourselves voluntarily and from the heart. At the same time, however, I think some people can sometimes use a little nudge. This is the only place in this post I’m going to really write about my “political” view, but here goes: I firmly believe that if people are being given assistance, from the government or from a faith-based organization or other group, then they can give something back for that aid. I love how Habitat for Humanity works: it requires that people give “sweat equity” to help build their own homes. They are provided a wonderful new home of their own, and they put in hours to build it and others’ homes. That’s part of why I like to donate money to that organization; I like its philosophy. I don’t think that requiring this kind of “payment” is all about “fairness,” though that is a part of it (if you’re going to get something, you should work for it in some way); it’s also about helping people to feel that they are valuable and able to give, able to work somehow. Those who are just given things without earning them tend to not feel as confident about themselves. So… I’m not against there being a government-sponsored safety net. Everyone ends up in a rough patch at one time or another, so it’s vital to have something available. But I would like to see that those who use that net for a while give back. Hunt for a new job, perhaps, for half of your day and spend the other half volunteering somewhere. This is just a general idea.

At any rate, I salute those in our society who work hard to take care of themselves (that’s SO many of you!), and then still spend more time working hard to help others. Whether you give money or time or any other of your particular resources, you are helping to build and maintain civilization.

Speak up about the real value of women

It would be difficult for anyone to argue that women aren’t being demeaned as objects in pretty much every single corner of society. It happens so much and is such a thoroughly pervasive message in media that we’ve almost forgotten to be angry about it. We just take for granted that it’s happening.

Well, I think it’s time for women — and men — to stand up and show some anger about this phenomenon. It’s time to stop the saturation of our culture with images of sexualized women.

You can’t slap a pink ribbon on everything and say it’s “supporting” women.

I’ve been writing off and on about this topic, and I’ve nearly finished the book I’m writing, which focuses on the topic from a faith-based angle. But nearly every day, I see something else that makes me want to shake my fist and just DO something, SAY something. Yesterday it was a USA Today article about how breast cancer is being sexualized. Wha?? Yep, it’s true. I suppose I’d already kind of subconsciously noticed it myself, but the article really clarified the point. I also had just noticed a full-page ad in an in-flight magazine when I was traveling over the weekend: it showed a photo of a very trim, fairly young woman with smallish but nice breasts (a point I feel inclined to note, since most of these kinds of photos show women with larger-than-life breasts) dressed in an itty-bitty white bikini. Flat abs, no fat, no cellulite, no blemishes. And the ad had the nerve to have been run by plastic surgeons touting the message that they can do great reconstruction on women who have had breast cancer. Aaaaiiiieee!

Let’s think about this honestly. Is the average survivor of breast cancer going to look like a 20-something model? Ah, nope. She’s going to have scars, could be some pretty big and ugly ones, depending on how much surgery had to be done. She might be thin (thanks to not being able to eat much during chemo), but not necessarily in the “attractive” way. It might not even be possible for reconstructive surgery to get her back to “normal.” A friend in her 50s recently told me about her experience with breast cancer, and she said that after having a double, radical mastectomy, she was told by surgeons that the process for giving her breasts would be lengthy and, as she put it, “barbaric.” And then she wouldn’t even be able to have normal-looking breasts: they wouldn’t be able to give them nipples. She turned down the surgery; no point in going through all that to have substandard breasts.

Nope, these kinds of demonstrations of support for breast cancer aren’t help. They are simply marketing opportunities painted in pink. The article quotes Karuna Jagger, executive director of advocacy group Breast Cancer Action, as saying, “The implicit message in these campaigns is that it is breasts that are sexy; sexy is what is important; and we should care about breast cancer because it takes those lovely, sexy breasts out of the world . . . Every October, the stunts just gets more bizarre and further removed from what’s needed for this epidemic.”

Why can’t we just stand up and say, ENOUGH, ALREADY!? Sexy, young, thin, well-endowed female models are used to sell almost everything. I work out at the gym every day and can see a bank of about five TV monitors showing different networks while I exercise. I read or listen to music, but I can’t help but glance over at the monitors and see what’s going on. At any given time, I see several images of unrealistically-shaped young women, on commercials or the news or various programs. The anchors on news networks are thin and usually young (at least in comparison to the men, who can be any age). Innocuous game shows feature models showing off the prizes. Soap operas feature cute young girls and some older women who have often had various work done (at the very least, Botox and injections to plump up their lips or cheekbones). All the commercials feature women. Products for men and commercials aimed at men feature sexy models, scantily clad. Products for women and commercials selling those products for women feature women; most of them are for hair color (get rid of gray) or skin creams that aim to reduce wrinkles and make skin look younger and fresher. Car commercials even mostly feature women: young, trim models.

It’s all about sexualization. When will all women say, Enough. No more. I refuse to be sexualized, to be objectified, any more. It starts at home and with our circle of friends, even just on Facebook or Pinterest. Stop pinning the “fitspiration” pins. I don’t. I like to exercise, and it’s a vital part of my daily routine. But I refuse to put another photo in front of me that has a ridiculously skinny teen or 20-something clad in a sports bra and tight boy shorts, touting her amazing workout that will make all of us look just like her. It’s ridiculous. We should be laughing, not trying to emulate those girls! Stop posting about how you feel fat or ugly or that you look old. Don’t expect yourself to look your regular self two weeks post-baby, either. Stop focusing on how you look, period. And don’t focus on how your friends look. Support them as they do great things with their lives, as they work on being their best selves.

Women’s important body parts aren’t our breasts or backsides. They’re our hearts and hands.
Photo by Louise Docker, via Wikipedia

Focus on YOU, women. Allow the men in your life to focus on who you are inside, too. Teach your daughters to be who they are, and teach your sons positive language about women and not to focus on appearance. Yes, be healthy. Try to eat mostly well. Exercise regularly. But don’t make how you look the end-all, be-all. Don’t let yourself be objectified. Don’t let the media and the marketers and the porn producers dictate how you feel about yourself or how society views you. Gently remind friends that they are “more than eye candy,” as Beauty Redefined enshrines in billboards, or that they are more than just numbers on a scale.

We women are amazing creatures. We nurture future generations. We lead society. We do great things. Let’s show ’em what we’ve got! We’re not about our body parts, unless we talk about our brains, our hearts, or our hands. Let’s join those hands and speak up.