Wednesday, October 24, 2007


There are many, many books Lucy loves that I would like to see permanently removed from circulation. Poorly written, overly didactic books that talk down to the reader, which, to my chagrin, does not seem to bother her in the least. Barbie Goes Rollerblading, for example, or any of the seemingly thousands of Berenstain Bears titles. We go to the public library and I pick out the old Corduroy, a charming story about a stuffed bear and Lisa, the little girl who adopts him. Lucy picks out the new Corduroy, an insipid tale in which Lisa seems not to exist anymore and Corduroy has a valuable lesson about friendship shoved down his throat. The temptation to “lose” these books between the children’s room and the circulation desk is great.

A few months ago, Ann Patchett had a piece in The Atlantic about her experience with attempted censorship at Clemson University. For those of you who didn’t read it, allow me to summarize: the school chose Truth and Beauty, Patchett’s story of the friendship between two young women and their paths toward adulthood, for its freshman reading program. As you might expect of a true story about coming of age, the book contains some (gasp!) drug use and (GASP!) sex. That’s not what the story is about, but it’s in there. The no doubt well-intentioned parents of some of the Clemson freshmen found out about the book (I say “found out about” rather than “read” because they were quite up front about the fact that they had not read it) and objected. Strenuously. So strenuously, in fact, that when Patchett finally came to campus to give her planned talk on the book, the University assigned her a security detail and hustled her in and out of the auditorium through the back door.

When I read this piece, I shook my head in righteous indignation. What is wrong with those people? I thought. Do they trust their children so little that they won’t allow them to read a book that might make them think? Do they plan to shelter them for their entire lives?

Yesterday, Lucy brought her first school library book home. She had chosen it herself, and we read it last night before bed. It turned out to be about a bully. Bullies are not something Lucy has ever come across, and so this required more than a little explanation. In the process, I could tell she was starting to get worried about meeting a bully, and I started to get upset that it was upsetting her. It’s true – I didn’t want to read her the book, because it talked about a bad thing she didn’t know about and I didn’t want her to worry. I wanted to protect her not just from bullies themselves, but from even the knowledge that bullies exist. No matter that probably the best way to protect her from bullies is to teach her that they exist and give her some strategies for dealing with them; the parental drive to shelter is not rational.

Now, it’s true that there are books that are not appropriate for five-year-olds. In fact, there are books that are ostensibly written for five-year-olds that are not appropriate for them. But the line between screening for developmental appropriateness and censoring is a fine one. And the slope from not checking out The Berenstain Bears Think of Those in Need to not reading the book about bullies to interfering in the college reading program is slippery. I have to ask myself, do I really think she’s not ready to read about this? Or do I not want her to be ready? Or is it maybe that I’m not ready? And then, unless it’s the first one, I have to suck it up and read.

Monday, October 22, 2007


I admit it – I didn’t think it would happen to me. Not so soon, anyway. OK, never, but if she were in high school or something I might have been less surprised. Yesterday, however, I was totally unprepared. Out of the blue, Lucy said to me, “girls like to do sweet things, but boys don’t.” Whoa.

Remain calm, I told myself. She’s only five. There’s no need to go into a diatribe about patriarchy and entrenched roles and sex versus gender.

“What do you mean?” I asked cautiously.

She shrugged. Clearly she didn’t really know what this meant, but had heard it somewhere and was testing it out.

“I think different people like to do different things,” I said, “but it doesn’t matter if they’re boys or girls.”

She looked at me pityingly. “Of course it matters if they’re boys or girls,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because girls are sweet.” Again with the sweet. Ew.

“Most people are sweet sometimes,” I said, “but I don’t think anyone is sweet all the time.” It was all I could do to say the word without scorn in my voice. Who wants to be sweet? is what I was really thinking.

“Girls are sweet,” she insisted. So stubborn! So sure of her own opinion! Where did she get that? And – wait a minute – wasn’t the inclination and ability to defend her own opinion in the face of conflicting beliefs the very antithesis of the sweetness that was bothering me? OK, so she wasn’t exactly defending herself, but she wasn’t giving in. She wasn’t – ahem – being sweet.

I clearly remember when I was a child my mother asking me, on what I now understand were occasions on which I used a word or phrase not my own, “who do you know who says that?” I also clearly remember thinking the question absurd – I said that; hadn’t I just proved it? As a child, I was not self-aware enough to notice someone else’s vernacular infiltrating my own. By asking me to think about it, my mother taught me to pay attention to where my words and, by extension, my ideas were coming from. I sincerely doubt that I ever gave her an answer to that question, and certainly not a correct one. But as an adult I think about those things all the time: where do my ideas come from? Who do I believe? And why? If I can teach my children to think critically, it will serve them better than any indoctrination with my own beliefs. And, in a time when people still get elected to public office not believing that the planet is warming or that Darwin had a clue, it will serve the rest of the world better, too.

Is it alarming that a five-year-old is parroting gender stereotypes? You bet it is. Do I want to know where she heard that? I’m dying to know, because I’d be more than happy to unleash my diatribe on someone my own age. Do I think Lucy might grow up thinking that girls are sweet and boys aren’t? Not a chance. She knows how to think things through for herself, and, with a little guidance for a few more years, she’ll be a force to be reckoned with.


Monday, October 8, 2007

The Letter

Dear Mr. Markoe:

I am writing about recess. My daughter is in kindergarten, and before school began, she spent hours outside each day, playing all kinds of physical, imaginative, and creative games. Now she gets at most 20 minutes of recess per day, which is barely enough to blow off the steam from sitting in a classroom for three or four hours and nowhere near enough to get involved in any meaningful games. My understanding from Ms. Ober is that this time limit is a guideline that comes out of your office, and I would like to respectfully suggest that it be changed.

As you are undoubtedly aware, there is compelling evidence to suggest that unstructured play is an integral part of learning for children [e.g. Pellegrini, Huberty & Jones, 1995]. Healthy children play elaborate games of make-believe, which teach them not only social skills but also how to think abstractly [Jarrett et al, 2001]. In addition, physical activity is crucial for healthy development, and our children do not get anywhere near enough of it [Etnier et al, 1997; Waite-Stupiansky & Findlay, 2001]. A physical education class every fourth day, although nice, does not meet this need. When kindergarten was half-day, we could assume (however falsely) that kids played outside when they got home. Now, however, they are in school for six or seven hours each day, plus time spent on the bus. They desperately need more unstructured playtime and physical activity.

As an educator myself, I am acutely aware of the pressure on you to meet local, state, and national standards. I am also aware that the consequences of not meeting those standards can be dire. But many of the standards are at best misguided and at worst actually damaging, and there comes a point when we must push back. We must say no, this is not what’s best for these children, and we won’t do it that way.

I look forward to hearing from you.


Etnier, J. L., Salazar, W., Landers, D. M., Petruzzello, S. J., Han, M., & Nowell, P. (1997). The influence of physical fitness and exercise upon cognitive functioning: A meta-analysis. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 19(3), 249-277.

Jarrett, O. S., Farokhi, B., Young, C., & Davies, G. (2001). Boys and girls at play: Games and recess at a southern urban elementary school. In S. Reifel (Ed.), Play and Culture Studies, Volume 3: Theory In Context and Out, 147-170. Westport, CT: Ablex.

Pellegrini, A. D., Huberty, P. D., & Jones, I. (1995). The effects of recess timing on children's playground and classroom behaviors. American Educational Research Journal, 32(4), 845-864. EJ 520 960.

Waite-Stupiansky, S., & Findlay, M. (2001). The fourth R: Recess and its link to learning. Educational Forum, 66(1), 16-24.