The Problem With Adults Choosing What Kids Read. Or: The Desensitization of the Gatekeepers

Writing Violence into the Minds of Kids: It's not there until YOU put it there.

Writing Violence into the Minds of Kids: It’s not there until WE put it there. Photo Source

I suggested in an earlier post that Authors, who are in a unique position of power, have a moral duty to ‘Do no Harm’ to their young audiences by thinking very carefully about what they choose to write about. My main concerns are the increasing amount of violence and graphic descriptions of violent and gruesome deaths in kid’s books.

Questions that arise from decreeing this ask ‘how much violence is too much?’ ‘can violence be justified if it is ‘dealt’ with in an effective manner by the story teller and has a realistic impact on the protagonists?’ ‘Should any author believe that they are equipped with the ability to then guide their readers with through violence?’

Here is part of my answer, which is yet another question: How can we, as adults, answer this question? Another part of my answer is this: We can’t, because: Adult perception of what is an ‘acceptable’ level of violence, is flawed.

This is why:

1.a. Children are a blank slate until they are exposed to images, mental or physical.

b. Repeated exposure to violent images has a negative effect on the mental health and wellbeing of the young.

c. Repeated exposure of such images also leads to desensitization and the young person may cease to be aware of the negative effects the images are having upon them. It may take stronger and harder images to garner a response from that person.

2.a. Adults are the gatekeepers for what kids read and see. This occurs in the form of parental guidance, and in the creation, production and distribution of educational and entertainment images through books, TV and film.

b. Adults are themselves, desensitized by images they have been exposed to during the course of their lives. This may have occurred through repeated exposure to violent images on TV, film, life experience and in literature itself.

c. Adults are desensitized gatekeepers: The Author (usually an adult) is desensitized. The literary agent, taking the author on for representation, is desensitized. The publisher is desensitized. The book distributer is desensitized. The parent, buying from desensitized book shop owners is desensitized.

The fact that adults are themselves desensitised by exposure to violence in their own lives impacts on their ability to choose what they think a child or young person, can cope with and should be able to cope with.

Conclusion: It follows that adult perception of what is an acceptable level of violence for a kids book, is flawed.

Is Parental Interference a solution?

Perhaps when becoming a parent, one has the capacity to become re-sensitized, in tune with the innocence of their children.  Could this put parents in a position to clearly judge what their children can cope with? Perhaps on an individual level, yes, and parents can be actively involved in the choice of their children’s reading material. This would include researching potential books and even reading them themselves before letting their children read them.

But that doesn’t stop the production and distribution of violent books. The irony is, I’m sure many of the Gatekeepers are themselves parents. It would be too optimistic to rely on and trust that parents  may be more ‘sensitized’ than non-parents, especially when big business and big bucks are involved.

Take a Step Back…

In my mind, the only solution is to take a step back and seriously reconsider what we are doing as writers, as agents, publishers (and of course as movie and video game makers, but that’s another story) to our young readers, particularly our young adults.

I would like to call upon all children’s authors, literary agents, publishing houses and bookshops to consider the following questions:

  • What stories are we trying to write and why? (Stand back from ‘trends’…trends are only there because we, as adults PUT them there).
  • Where does the inspiration to include repeated motifs of violence come from?
  • Is it possible to write a page turning mentally challenging adventure/coming of age story without reference to violent scenes?
  • What makes a kids/young adult’s book “good”?
  • How do you think a kid aged 5, 8, 12, 14 and 18 would answer this?

If you are a writer, literary agent, publisher or parent reading this, how would you answer these questions? What books did you most enjoy when you were a child/young adult?

You may enjoy my earlier article: Violent Deaths in Kids Books: Authors ‘should’ aim to Do No Harm to Young Readers and Time to Write the Violence out of Kid’s Books: Article for Generation Next

  5 comments for “The Problem With Adults Choosing What Kids Read. Or: The Desensitization of the Gatekeepers

  1. Claire Ross
    April 6, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Enjoyed reading this – well written and important to flag up!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Steven
    April 10, 2013 at 3:17 am

    Thrown into instant parenting I learn some things the hard way. The first movie I put on the DVD with my 4yo around I thought would be ok. Well the first scene had no link to the rest of the movie but scared the bejesus out of her. For weeks I couldn’t go near the remote as she didn’t trust I was going to put something nice on. Well the positive to this is the tv just stays off, nothing of value to watch anyway. I don’t know how long I can hide the Playstation as something that only plays cartoons though!
    The lasting effect of exposure to one minute of gore really surprised and educated me.

  3. Karl
    April 21, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    Hi Naomi, I agree with you entirely. On the question of where the inspiration for repeated motifs of violence comes from, there are some very interesting studies which indicate, as you suggest, that the motive lies beyond ‘trendiness’. There is a growing body of evidence showing how film and literature manipulate their audiences’ moral judgements by evoking bodily disgust.

    Film and literature have always evoked mixed affects and emotions (or valence as the psychologists call it). What is peculiar about the last decade or so is the regularity with which writers and filmmakers will evoke bodily disgust in their audience in order to intensify other affects and emotions with which they’re meant to co-occur (e.g. schadenfreude, antipathy, astonishment, amusement, anticipation, whatever). It all makes for a very transforming experience for the viewer/reader; and of course it increases the work’s popularity and the artist’s bottom line. But it’s hardly a morally justifiable approach to children’s/young adults’ entertainment. Even if bodily disgust is intended to be positively valenced with empathy, sympathy, admiration or some other more favourable feeling, by that stage it’s too late, the damage is done.

    • Naomi R Cook
      April 23, 2013 at 8:15 am

      Hi Karl,thanks so much for reading this and for taking the time to comment. It’s interesting that you point out that this has become more of an issue over the last ten years. I agree, and because its a relatively new phenomenon we still have ample time to tackle it and do away with it before it becomes entrenched. The big challenges will be in dealing with violence from other mediums such as video games. These help to set the precedent causing the young reader to expect and “need” it in their other forms of entertainment.

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