Friday, June 15, 2007

In loco parentis

Giving a child a book that you've never read yourself means taking quite a lot on trust. What might lie between those covers? Sure, the book will have gone through an editorial process, and so as a parent you can reasonably expect the content to be 'suitable' - whatever that may mean. Nevertheless a child with a book is effectively a child in the company of a stranger, and an adult stranger at that.

I am that adult stranger (on occasion) and I feel the responsibility. Children are susceptible. As an audience they're relatively easy to scare, manipulate, and indoctrinate. I feel that children's fiction writers therefore have to be particularly conscious and careful of what they say.

At one level this can simply mean censorship of dialogue. I'm under no illusions. I have children of my own, I've worked in schools and am around kids generally - but there's no way that my characters can be allowed to use the actual language of the playground. Parents wouldn't stand for it, nor would teachers, librarians or editors for that matter. Is this right, though? Shouldn't I be arguing for licence to reflect what is? No, I don't think so. Language is our precious gift. The ability to properly communicate across class creed and culture is essential to our future. I should be attempting to promote a higher standard rather than weakly mirror a low one.

The fact that I don't live up to my own ideals should not be taken as evidence of hypocrisy. Not a bit of it. I'm a pretty good cusser when I want to be, but there's a difference between giving the odd sentence a bit of a tickle and consistently bludgeoning each one into the ground. I keep the volume to a minimum - and down to absolute zero if there are kids around. Bad language should be regarded as bad. That's what makes it so good.

So I have to watch my tongue. I also have to be careful in other areas: religion, politics, sexuality. When you give your child over to me for a couple of days you want to be confident that he isn't going to return as your moral equivalent of a werewolf. If he's been brought up a staunch Protestant, you might be alarmed to find him well on the road to Catholicism. If he's been taught to believe in the sanctity of heterosexual marriage you won't thank me if he now wants to go and live with Uncle Joe and Auntie Nigel. Then there are the 'scenes of a violent nature' to consider. What if your formerly robust and cheerful child is handed back to you a pale and gibbering wreck, haunted by his own shadow? It's no easy dance, I tell you, to be continually on the lookout for issues that might cause pain or affront, and to get the balance right between the deliciously scary and the downright horrific. Well, I can only try. But perhaps I've an overinflated sense of my own power to influence. I'm only in loco parentis after all - just a glorified babysitter. Yes, that's me: the babysitter. Mmwah...ha...ha...ha...


Jen said...

I just finished my first year as a librarian in a primary school. I have been doing a lot of reading of children's and young adult lit in the past 9 months. I've come across a lot of books that surprised me with their language (I like your line about choosing not to "weakly mirror a low one") and their overt political commentaries.

I don't think that you've overinflated your ability to influence kids through your books. I appreciate that you don't take it lightly.

Steve Augarde said...

Thanks Jen. I'm privately appalled at the use of English I encounter in some schools, both written and verbal. Teachers and librarians are fighting an uphill battle in the face of falling standards of social behaviour - standards that are being carried into adulthood and passed on to the next generation - so that there seems to be little time or opportunity or will to instil a formal understanding of grammar. I accept that language is organic and constantly shifting, but you would hope that change would mean development rather than disintegration. Little wonder that we now have university graduates who are incapable of constructing and punctuating a simple sentence. Don't get me started!

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