A child’s right to information

Dot writes: last week and next week are full of conferences for me, meaning that my head is furiously buzzing with ideas, some of which I’d love to discuss on the blog, but I am also in a big panic to finish papers (and finish organizing – I am running next week’s event) so if I have any time or energy I have to spend it working. However, it’s Sunday – a day of rest, right? So here’s a little report on a paper I went to on Wednesday. It was part of the annual SHARP conference (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing), which was held this last week at Trinity College and had the theme ‘The Battle for Books.’

Paper author: Lynne E.F. McKechnie, University of Western Ontario
Paper title: ‘ “I think kids should be able to read whatever they want and believe in whatever they feel like believing in” (Emily, 9 years): The battle for books between children and the library associations and organizations which serve them’

Provocative title, eh? I admit I went into this paper thinking, great topic, but there’s a problem here – yes we should be open with our children, foster their minds etc, but there’s some terrible stuff out there and it’s just an abrogation of one’s moral responsibility not to guide kids through and, in some cases, firmly away. (And the idea of ‘believing what you feel like believing in’ sets my teeth on edge – beliefs aren’t like flavours of icecream – but I have to cut Emily some slack: she’s only nine.) However, this was a very persuasive and lively presentation and some points really got me questioning my attitudes.

* The UN declaration on the rights of the child affirms the right of the child not just to freedom of expression but to freedom of access to information.
* The American Library Association (I think it’s them – I don’t have my notes by me) affirms both the right of the child to information and the right and responsibility of parents and only parents (i.e. not librarians) to determine what their children will have access to
* The Association for Library Service to Children, which is a subdivision of the ALA, naturally subscribes to the position of its parent organization but also issues publications with titles like “Kids – Know Your Rights!” Which is subtly subversive of them.
* McKechnie sees the position of the ALA as a bit of a cop-out (we’ll stock this stuff, and then you have to stop your kids reading it). Her big contribution is to talk to children themselves about the issues. What she found with a small focus group of children is that they accept that there are some books that are too old for them. However, they are also canny and pragmatic about getting round the rules when there’s something they want to read and adults want to stop them.
* Children’s perception of what is “inappropriate” aren’t necessarily the same as adults’. They don’t worry about or mention sexual content. They are more likely to think in terms of an inappropriate book being scary or violent. In the question session I mentioned the way our own little boys often seem to filter out a lot of what I see as disturbing in a story and asked if much research has been done on how children perceive narratives. Apparently there has – lots.

There are two main ways in which I’ve found myself questioning and wondering following this paper. First, perhaps the right attitude is not to censor at all. Anything in the library and anything in our own collection will be fine for our boys as soon as they can read them: the bits they aren’t ready for they’ll simply fail to register or spontaneously avoid. Do I buy this? I’m not sure. Imperfectly understood information can be worse than no information – look at the media. And it’s quite possible for a child to come across something they find upsetting and then not feel able to talk about it, even with parents who are open and approachable.

Second, does this libertarian approach extend to television? There was a comment in the question session from someone who researches video games, saying that there’s no evidence children become more violent as a result of playing violent games. However, I am bothered by Hugh (in particular) watching programmes with lots of fighting in and then filling his imaginative life and his play with explosions and bashing and death. I would like to control how much he watches of this kind of thing more than we currently do. But maybe all this really means is that I find this style of play distasteful: from Hugh’s point of view, is it just something he needs to think through and explore, without being any more violent than he naturally would be (as an impulsive four-year-old) in his interactions with other people?

I’d love to have your comments and thoughts, whether from the perspective of libraries and what they should provide to children or parents and how much they should censor and control what children are exposed to.

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10 thoughts on “A child’s right to information

  1. mairij

    I think the social environment for contemporary kids is full of enticement. The enticements are manipulative; they aim to manipulate the kids directly as consumers, or parents as consumers through their kids. In short, I think there is a lot of mental junk food out there. If we feel a need to try and steer our kids away from physical junk food, or at least to balance it with nutritious food, surely we should feel a similar obligation to care for their mental fare.

    1. Dot

      I think you hit on a useful dimension here that wasn’t addressed in the paper (a short one, admittedly): selecting not in order to exclude ideas that are perceived as dangerous or not age-appropriate, but in accordance with perceptions of quality. The label ‘information’ is actually misleadingly neutral. The contents of a library, both fiction and non-fiction, in print and other media, amount to a lot more than that. But it is very hard to have a public policy about aesthetic value, intellectual value or moral value, because the first two are so bound up in the last and libraries rightly for a diverse society.

  2. Dot

    I feel I should add a comment in justice to Hugh. Let it be noted that over the last few days whenever I have played with him his recurrent game has been families, and in particular identifying various toys as mother and daughter pairs. He is very interested in girls and names his toys Ellie, Zoe, Hannah and either Saffie or Sappie (he quickly runs out of names and starts to make them up or repeat them – I think we had three baby dinosaurs called Ellie this morning). Typical patter: “We are all girls. We are a girl club.” In this game I get to play the boys and whenever he decides a toy is a boy he gives it to me.

    So bashing is certainly not all that’s on his mind.

  3. This is a dangerous topic. Ultimately, I don’t think that we should deny access. It pisses me off when people take To Kill A Mockingbird out of schools because it has the “n-word” in it. It ticks me off when people burn Harry Potter because it has witches. People try to decide what their kids should and shouldn’t read, and frankly, they get it wrong a lot.

    On the other hand, I do believe in keeping things age appropriate. I caught bits of some movies that I shouldn’t have caught bits of growing up, and those scarred me a little bit. I think that a parent should pick and choose the quality of what their child watches (even if “quality” is a qualitative term which will mean something different to each parent).

    Particularly when it comes to television – it has been proven again and again that teleivision is harmful. The pediatricians in the U.S. are clearly getting annoyed that no one listens when they tell them so, and their prohibitions are getting more and more funny. Currently, children under the age of to should not (according to the pediatric society) watch ANY TV, or even be in a room where a television is playing. At all. EVER.

    We know television is junk and I think that it should be censored.

    But books are books. I say, if the kid is at a reading level to understand it, the kid should be given access. Just nudge them towards the good ones.

    1. ken

      My recollection of our boys is that kids that age, I.e. under two, are not particularly interested in television even if it is available. You couldn’t get Frank to sit still in front of a tv for more than five minutes. They’re just more interested in what you’re doing.

  4. ken

    I haven’t stuck my oar in on this yet. Morally speaking, I don’t think children have the same rights as adults. They’re not responsible moral agents yet and until they are it is quite proper to subordinate their freedom of access to information to the goal of their moral education. I think sometime in their teenage years, maybe the final couple of years of high school, they might be mature enough to have unfettered access to information. I don’t think withholding information (etc.) from them disrespects children or fails to value them as people or anything like that. It’s right and proper to be paternalistic towards children.

    1. kenanddot

      From wikipedia:
      “Paternalism (or parentalism) most typically refers to behavior, by a person, organization or state, which limits some person’s liberty or autonomy for their good, or the liberty or autonomy of some group of people for their good.”

      The etymology suggests treating adults as children. It’s right and proper to treat children as children.

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