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Opinion | Book Banning Is About the Illusion of Parental Control

For the record, I think bans are terrible for many reasons, including because they’re frequently about political fights among adults that spill into children’s lives when it’s not really about them. As my Times colleague Margaret Renkl wrote Monday in an Opinion essay, “the vast majority of teenagers in McMinn County already carry the modern world around in their pockets — the cussing and the sex and the violence and all of it.” Many recent bans are part of the general, misguided push against so-called critical race theory. Other bans are against books depicting any kind of non-heterosexual sex or romance. The American Library Association has a list of the top 10 most challenged books from 2001-2020 on its website, and sexual and racial content are popular recent reasons for banning.

More alarming are the threats to criminalize distribution of what politicians deem “pornographic” books. One Texas high school librarian told NBC News she was retiring earlier than planned because of these threats. “I got out because I was afraid to stand up to the attacks. I didn’t want to get caught in somebody’s snare. Who wants to be called a pornographer? Who wants to be accused of being a pedophile or reported to the police for putting a book in a kid’s hand?”

While it is distressing, none of this is new. An article published more than 40 years ago in Time magazine called “The Growing Battle of the Books” discusses a strikingly similar dynamic to the one we’re witnessing today, with books that have sexual, racial and religious content among the most banned.

The entire article is worth a read, but this paragraph stuck out to me as particularly relevant to our current struggle:

Few censors, if any, tend to see that censorship itself runs counter to certain basic American values. But why have so many people with such an outlook begun lurching forth so aggressively in recent years? They quite likely have always suffered the censorial impulse. But they have been recently emboldened by the same resurgent moralistic mood that has enspirited evangelical fundamentalists and given form to the increasingly outspoken constituency of the Moral Majority. At another level, they probably hunger for some power over something, just as everybody supposedly does these days. Thus they are moved, as American Library Association President Peggy Sullivan says, “by a desperation to feel some control over what is close to their lives.”

It’s not surprising to me that after two years of pandemic uncertainty and chaos, we’re in a moment where some parents want to exert control over something, anything for their kids, and I do have some empathy for that feeling, if not for the expression of it. Particularly because the early quarantines, when virtual schooling was happening everywhere, brought curriculum and teachers into our homes in much more intimate ways. In that moment, teenagers were at home instead of starting to grow away from their families, which is what they’re supposed to do. While parents always have some sway over their kids, this period of enforced togetherness possibly gave some parents the illusion that they still had full authority over their adolescents’ intellectual lives.

My mother, who practiced psychiatry for 40 years, used to tell me that you have until your kid is 12 to, if you will, brainwash them with your set of moral values. After that, their peers become as, if not more, influential than their parents. In the ’90s, Judith Rich Harris, an independent researcher, promoted the theory that parental influence matters less than we think in terms of child development.

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