When Schools Allow Parents to Shelter Their Kids (But Not Mine)

Ask PermissionParents are rarely happy about the education their children receive, or so it seems.

Some complaints are legitimate, particularly in our current climate of education funding cuts. Others, however, are based on nothing more than the parent’s rosy memory about the education he or she received (that faulty assumption that everything was better in the past!) or, in the worst cases, the parent’s bizarre desire to force his or her views on everyone else’s children.

It’s usually the latter type of person who challenges the books included in the curriculum or on the library shelves. I sympathize with the teachers and school administrators who have to deal with those complaints—that is, until they cave in to the pressure. From a public relations perspective, what may seem like a reasonable policy of appeasing parents can backfire if the school’s decision to ban books makes the news.

Remember when the Alamogordo Public School District in New Mexico withdrew Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from the 10th grade curriculum? The district restored the book, but not in time to save itself from widespread public scrutiny.

When I wrote about that fiasco, I noted how a distict’s decision to remove a book from the curriculum differs from its decision to remove it from the school library:

A curriculum forces students to read certain material, whether they or their parents want such exposure, while the library merely provides students with access to materials they could choose to borrow. Thus, it makes sense that there would be wider latitude given to districts to remove books from school curricula than to remove books from library shelves.

As a result, courts rarely disturb a school district’s decisions about curricula. See, e.g., Ward v. Polite, 667 F.3d 727 (6th Cir. 2012) (“Curriculum choices are a form of school speech, giving schools considerable flexibility in designing courses and policies and in enforcing them so long as they amount to reasonable means of furthering legitimate educational ends.”).

So, considering how hard it is for parents to challenge the inclusion or exclusion of a supposedly controversial book, how should districts handle parental complaints? Just about every book — even something as seemingly innocuous as Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree — is “controversial” to someone.

Well, my preferred response is for the district to consider whether the book furthers a legitimate, age-appropriate educational goal. If so, then ignore the complaint. If the district still wants to appease the parent, though, another option is to provide an exemption that gives parents an opportunity to force their children to “opt out” of reading certain books.

Recently, the Highland Park Independent School District in Texas, another district with self-imposed book banning woes has decided to offer exemptions to parents who disagree with the content in six books: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

Well, the exemption option is certainly a less restrictive alternative to removing the book from the curriculum altogether. I hope parents will actually read those books themselves (as unlikely as that may be) and consider what exactly it is about those books that scares them before they require their child “opt out.” As I discussed in Please Stop Parenting my Children, if what they fear is that new ideas in those books will “brainwash” their children, all I can say is this:

[E]xposure to many different ideas doesn’t brainwash people. It’s the exposure to only one idea or belief system that does. If the mere exposure to new ideas is enough for those old beliefs to crumble, then its proponents should stop to consider why their beliefs aren’t more persuasive. In my opinion, an idea that can’t withstand a fair debate isn’t an idea worth passing onto the next generation.

In the end, though, I suspect that many of the students whose parents force them to “opt out” will read those books as soon as they can on their own. For teenagers, is there a better indicator of what they should be doing than what their stodgy, traditionalist parents say is wrong?


  1. Fascinating. I admit to only having read the Huxley among those six but the grounds of challenge seem exceedingly flimsy.

    AMB is this an American schools’ thing? I can’t recall any controversy at all in Britain (or Jersey) as to set books. In secondary schools this always used to include a Shakespeare which, as you know, will usually contain some stuff to get schoolboys giggling 🙂 Maybe parents just don’t care as much.

  2. We read the unabridged edition of Native Son in my high school in Maryland. I can’t imagine the schools in my area getting away with having that one on the reading list (and it’s not), which is a shame. Yes it was shocking and graphic, but wow the discussions we had in class about that book were amazing and thought-provoking, and the book has stayed with me ever since.

  3. It would be amusing if it weren’t so scary. It is the time honored way to get kids to read something by telling them they can’t. Unfortunately the world has changed and many kids are so indoctrinated by the time they are teens that they spout the same troglodyte memes that their parents have lived for so many years. We used to be able to count on teens rebelling, and it is a sad time for that to fail. Intellectual curiosity is a wonderful thing, not something to be swept under the rug.

  4. What is so interesting to me (slightly unrelated) is this slow change that has been going on for probably 50 years or so. As information becomes more available, via the internet and television, you would think there would be more exposure to new ideas, and more enlightenment. Instead it seems to me like people are actually using technology to isolate themselves from unwanted information.
    Now, instead of having to watch the one nightly news channel or read one of the few available newspapers, people have dozens (maybe even hundreds) of sources for news. So instead of exposing people to new ideas, it allows them to simply choose the news that suits the ideals and beliefs they already hold.
    Same thing with books. You’d think the increased availability of both fiction and non-fiction would increase learning, but instead it has almost an opposite effect: people can just choose books for their families which do not challenge their beliefs, and still have a huge library of reading material. And because there are so many choices for education (private schools, homeschooling, or simply petitioning the public school to follow your personal ideals) people are able to effectively restrict the ideas and information their children are exposed to.
    It is interesting, and a little scary.

    1. That’s a very interesting thought. I think you’re right that some people are isolating themselves even more so now. Maybe the limited exposure to new ideas that they’ve already had has scared them into isolating themselves as much as possible. They can turn on Fox News, watch it 24/7, and see a completely different world from the one I live in. That said, I think it’s much harder for those people to isolate their children, thanks to the Internet, television, and cell phones. That’s what I hope.

  5. There are some themes in our culture that we remain determined to repress. It’s sad, because there is a cruel pettiness involved when we say to broad groups of people “your stories don’t matter.” Curiosity about other people is an important part of cultivating compassion.

    1. “It’s sad, because there is a cruel pettiness involved when we say to broad groups of people ‘your stories don’t matter'”

      Well said! It’s very sad. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Some parents have no idea what their kids are ready for. I remember sneak reading The Harrad Experiment by Rimmer every time my mother left the house. I was around fifteen, I think. She kept it in her purse, so it wasn’t hard to get to. That book opened my mind to a world I’d never imagined before, where people didn’t live the way I’d been raised. It was wonderful! I can still feel the shutters falling away in my mind as I considered new lifestyles, new ideas. A lot of people read that book for what they considered illicit sex, but I read it because the characters had considered choosing a different way to love. It changed the way I looked at things.

    As it happened, I never had a serious opportunity to forge relationships outside the norm, but knowing it was possible made me explore more and question everything. 🙂 I would never deny my kids the right to read anything they wanted to. I would simply make sure I was around if they needed to ask questions.

    1. “I would never deny my kids the right to read anything they wanted to. I would simply make sure I was around if they needed to ask questions.”

      Well said. That’s how I’m trying to raise my girls. There are some books that I think they’ll understand better when they’re older (like Julie of the Wolves, which I’ve written about before), but I would never prevent them from reading something, particularly when educators have decided to include it in the curriculum. I agree that parents aren’t necessarily experts on what their children are ready to experience. My children’s teachers are often far more aware of what’s appropriate for them than I am.

  7. This is just frustrating. I love Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is a great piece that teaches about the treachery of vanity and self idolization. I personally think that book NEEDS to be taught, especially with the ‘its all about me’ mentality of the nation’s younger culture. Now I read Brave New World in school and it is definitely not one of my favorites. But I wouldn’t have been able to develop such strong opinions over such classics if I. HAD. NEVER. READ. THEM. I want my future kids to read them! Parents should read the books and then discuss them with their kids if they are so concerned about the messages they offer.

    and mini-rant over…

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! It’s such a shame that parents want to get in the way of their children’s exposure to books that educators believe are valuable and appropriate for them.

  8. You’d think that being forbidden would make some of these books even more desirable. But I’m thinking about a girl who had been home-schooled by religious parents until she went to college, and I had her in my class. She was turning 18 in September and I was showing the Branagh/Fishburne film of Othello, which she informed me she could not watch because she wasn’t 18 yet. It turns out that her parents had told her kids couldn’t watch R-rated movies before the age of 18. She believed it. She probably still shares all their beliefs.

    1. There will certainly be some children like the one you’ve described (these parents were children once!), especially when they are homeschooled in a very restrictive way. The kids I’m talking about in the post go to public school, though, and will have to be excused when the rest of the class is talking about a book. I can’t imagine how embarrassing that must be!

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