Parents, Don’t Opt Out

Why would you restrict what your children read in school?

I see it every school year, and I’m sick of it.

Sometimes it’s in May, when summer reading lists come out. Sometimes it’s in August, when English teachers send home a syllabus.

It crosses my Facebook feed, and the post goes something like this: “Just a friendly reminder that you can request another reading option for your child.” Or “The books chosen may be fine for some families. Parents know best what is appropriate for their children.” Or maybe even “DM me for more details.”

This censorship that skulks around school parent groups on social media enrages me. It’s bigotry in dulcet tones, a thinly veiled attempt to recruit others to “opt out” of a book chosen with care by a teacher or librarian.

It whips up a frenzy over books that mention gay characters, ones in which the protagonists have sex or do drugs, titles where the main characters say “fuck,” ones that center Black teens grappling with violence and racism. No one’s “opting out” of Shakespeare or Steinbeck or Salinger. They’re rejecting award-winning, critically acclaimed contemporary young-adult books from modern bestselling authors like Jason Reynolds, Jandy Nelson and Laurie Halse Anderson.

This kind of censorship doesn’t often warrant news coverage. Where I live in Austin, we’ve heard plenty about the ongoing book-banning in Leander to the north, and the parental pearl-clutching in the western suburbs after elementary school teachers read a picture book about a transgender boy.

No, this is sneaky. It employs the same tone you’d use to share a weeknight dinner recipe or a sports team fundraiser. It pretends like this is a completely normal thing and even something you might want to do, rejecting a book because content might not be “appropriate” for your teen. Just us folks here! I’m glad you heathen families enjoy these books! (Message me if you want to know why they’re bad!)

Just stop. Please stop. Stop shielding your teens from real life on the page. Teachers and librarians aren’t choosing books because they’re salacious or incendiary or they want to corrupt your kid. They think long and hard about what titles are included, and whose stories get the spotlight.

When you opt out, you’re opting out of a lot more than one particular book. You opt out of the chance to talk with your kids about what’s happening in the world in a safe and unthreatening way. You erase a tool for building empathy and the opportunity to dive into a different reality.

You’re saying loud and clear: “We don’t read about gay people in this house” or “We don’t care about what happened to your Black friend.” You are broadcasting to your child that you don’t think they can handle even reading about things that actually happen to some kids.

Who gets to see themselves in the stories that an entire class reads, discusses and analyzes? Is it only the white straight kids who celebrate Christmas? Or can the whole class read a story in which a Muslim kid gets to score the winning touchdown, gay teens get to meet cute in the cafeteria or Native students run the student newspaper?

Guess what? When you opt out, you don’t eliminate the possibility that your child will hear about these stories or events or people. You simply tell them that you won’t be talking about it. (Was the point that they learn about sex from friends?)

Quit it, parents. You’re not fooling anyone–except yourself.

 

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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