Well readers, last week I saw an article online about a small publisher which was editing the classic poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to “meet the needs of today’s children.” I guess some parents have been frantically tearing out pages of children’s books because of the stanza about the pipe Santa held tight in his teeth, and the smoke that encircled his head like a wreath. Yes, parents are afraid that hearing these two lines in a fictional children’s poem will corrupt their children and they will grow up to be smokers.
How fitting that I should see this article during Banned Books Week because while controversy over this poem didn’t get the media saturation that The Hunger Games and Harry Potter received, to me such altering of a classic is just as troubling as banning a book.
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was my absolute favorite poem as a child, and still is today. We have a Christmas CD that my mom purchased to support the Make a Wish foundation even before I was born, on which Rush Limbaugh recites the poem. (Yes, I know all about him and don’t condone his views, especially his recent commentary at all, but I put politics aside at Christmas because he does an amazing job with this classic). And guess what? Despite hearing the unabridged poem all my life, I have never touched a cigarette or pipe and have no plans to start. Maybe it could be argued that this poem is different for sighted children because when they get this poem from children’s books, they aren’t just hearing the words but also having them re-enforced by an illustration of Santa’s pipe. But I don’t think that makes a difference because my sighted peers who heard this poem as a child aren’t all smoking either. That is why even though I am the furthest thing from a parenting expert, I wish I could tell parents just from my experience as a recent child that the opportunity to live an uncensored childhood is among the best gifts my parents gave my siblings and me. The interesting thing is, my parents didn’t purposefully declare “our children will have an uncensored childhood!” or make a conscious point of exposing us to all kinds of influences. We simply lived our lives.
If my parents or teenage siblings wanted to watch a movie or TV show with violence or profanity, I was never sent out of the room. Those “due to the graphic nature of this program, viewer discretion is advised” warnings meant nothing. When it came to profanity, my parents instilled in me from as young as I can remember that “these words are out there in the world but they are not nice words and you should never repeat them.” (I do find it unfair that my parents let my older siblings get away with a little swearing, but if I so much as say “dammit” when I stub my toe on something, they freak out. When I mentioned it to Mom once she laughed and admitted that she didn’t want her youngest precious angel to take up swearing, which I can understand. I’ll probably be that way with my youngest child, but that’s besides the point). The point is by being allowed to hear these words all my life, it wasn’t a big deal when I got in to the less innocent world of high school and college where I heard them right and left.
Violent movies never scared me because I never had much of an imagination, so I knew the plots were fictional. But my parents even let me watch stories of real violence; Dateline murder mysteries, the local news, even America’s Most Wanted which occasionally mentioned cases of children kidnapped from their bedrooms or backyards and brutally murdered. These cases scared me the most, especially when John Walsh would say, “he could be anywhere tonight.” Could he be under my bed, or lurking outside my window? I would wonder. Sure it may have been nice to grow up in blissful innocence, never hearing these stories, but I have heard that children sheltered from such stories grow up to be too trusting of the world, do foolish things like get in a car with a stranger and thus they are more likely to be victimized. But instead of turning off the program when I seemed troubled by it, they would use the opportunity to remind me that most people are good. There are just a few bad people out there. If I took basic precautions–never trust a stranger that tries to lure you with candy or a lost puppy; scream loud to attract attention if someone grabs you; never answer the door alone, etc.), it was statistically unlikely that anything would ever happen to me, and nothing ever did. I have heard experts say that children are innocent and delicate and shouldn’t be exposed to such things, but by being exposed to these things, I feel like I am safer. As my parents hoped, I believe that most people are good, but I have a healthy awareness and respect for the dangers of the world which keeps me from doing foolish things.
Maybe I was unusually airheaded as a child, but somehow I really don’t think I was that unusual in the fact that as small children, you are often in your own little world of play and innocence where the last thing that occurs to you is to analyze poems and even songs you hear. Getting back to ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas for example, I completely overlooked the implications of Santa smoking a pipe. (As a matter of fact, I never even thought about them until reading that article last week). As a child, the visions of sugarplumbs and the child witnessing the arrival of Santa and his reindeer were all that I noticed. As an older child (young adult), I loved the poem for its fun rhyme and rhythm and the expressiveness of Limbaugh’s recitation. The same is true of many songs I loved as a child. In preschool, one of my absolute favorite songs was Reba MacEntire’s song Fancy. I loved the sound of Reba’s voice and just the beat and almost theatrical quality of the song that I would want Mom to play it over and over on our CD to the point that my older siblings told me when I was older that they longed to bash the CD player in with a hammer. Eventually, my obsession with this song waned and I even forgot about the song until the summer after sixth grade, the first summer I had my very own CD player in my bedroom. That was also the summer when a whole bunch of old CD’s that had been misplaced re-surfaced, including the once beloved Reba CD! Just for the nostalgia, I asked Mom to hand me the Reba CD so I could hear Fancy again. She didn’t have to tell me what track the song was. I recognized it instantly. Instantly, I remembered how much I loved the sound of the song, but the nostalgia was tainted by the fact that as an older child who knew more about the world and paid better attention to lyrics, it occurred to me that this song I loved so much as a preschooler was about a poor mother who spent every last penny she had on a fancy dress for her teenage daughter whom she turned out of the house, encouraging her to go in to prostitution! But you know what? My mom with her wisdom knew I wasn’t paying attention to the words, that even if I was, the adult ideas of the song would just glide right over my little head. (We were discussing this just the other day and she told me that if I had asked questions about the song, she would have explained it in an age appropriate way because it is a reality of the world we live in.) But she knew that while little children are generally oblivious to adult lyrics, they are very aware of how their parents react, and thus frantically rushing over to the CD player to skip over that track would have only gotten my curiosity up. “Why do you always skip that song Mommy?” I likely would have asked, backing her in to an unnecessary, awkward corner. She understood that children just play and live in their own little world, so if you just go about life and not frantically tear out pages, skip tracks on a CD, change a channel, shoo kids out of the room or yell “hey! little ears!” if a guest tells an inappropriate joke or something, children likely won’t even notice and no harm will be done. After all, how can you be corrupted by something you are not even paying attention to because you are too young to understand?
Getting back to the article on ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, it occurred to me while reading it that just the previous weekend, I had another experience in which I had never really paid attention to a song I had heard a million times. My parents and I were in the car running an errand listening to the oldies station as usual when it dawned on me, “Whoa! Did that song just say I get high with a little help from my friends?”
“Yep!” they answered, “it was written in a different time, the Hippie era when many didn’t know or perhaps knew but didn’t care, about how harmful drugs were.”
Of course, as an adult it was no longer necessary to approach subjects delicately, but what a perfect way to address a situation, one which any parent could use if their child did notice the lines about Santa’s smoking. They could just gently explain, “this poem was written long, long ago when people didn’t know that smoking was harmful to health.” This could also be a perfect opportunity for a rudimentary “just because you read about something in some poem or book doesn’t mean it’s right” discussion. If a parent isn’t interested in deep discussions, they could even just say that since Santa is a magical, immortal being, he can get away with smoking, but regular humans don’t have this power.
I am already thinking about hoarding copies of this and other controversial classics in case this editing becomes the trend because I want my kids to have the privilege I enjoyed of an uncensored childhood. Because to be honest, I would rather risk my children taking up smoking when they grow up than raise them on censored poems and risk them growing up to accept without question a George Orwell type world where erasing and re-writing history “to suit the needs of people today” is the norm.
But the risk is low of them growing up to take up smoking anyway for other reasons; education about the dangers most importantly; the fact that it is now banned in so many places; the cost of the habit–(I saw a Facebook status just today from a boy who decided to quit when he saw that with all the taxes, one pack of cigarettes now costs over $8)–and the positive example of non-smoking parents which as I said earlier, kids pay much more attention to than lines in a poem or song. And although I haven’t officially researched this, it seems as though people I know of who do smoke do so out of a natural college thrill of rebelling against parents, and a feeling of invincibility. I never was tempted to smoke because it smells disgusting to me, but I rebelled in other stupid ways as a college freshman–eating spectacularly unhealthy meals in the dining room, and walking to class on single-digit days with no coat on for instance–so while I don’t understand the appeal of smoking, I can understand the thrill of doing something your parents don’t condone and feeling invincible while doing it. I understand how out of love, parents would want to do everything in their power to keep their children from doing stupid things, especially since smoking is addictive and one cigarette in college quickly can become a lifetime habit. But the hard truth is, the natural desire of young adults to rebel against their parents is out of any parent’s control, and has nothing to do with Santa, so I predict that even if this censored poem takes hold, it will make absolutely no difference in smoking statistics.
But more importantly, as I have said so many times already, it is what the parents do, not the media children are exposed to that matters. Reba’s song Fancy did not spark an interest in prostitution because by the time I understood the implications of the song, my parents had cemented values of honest work, Christian morals and self-respect. Despite hearing profanity at an early age, I don’t curse like a sailor–in fact I hardly curse at all, only when I stub my toe and my parents aren’t in earshot–because my parents have talked with my siblings and me about how people who curse on television go for the cheap laugh, but being funny or making a statement without using a stream of curse words takes more creativity and intelligence.
I hear a lot about parents who are very strict about what their children are exposed to and think that in this way, they are teaching good values. But blocking any references to violence, profanity, prostitution, smoking or drug use also blocks teachable moments. An uncensored childhood and good values can go hand in hand, and in fact, I think that by taking advantage of these teachable moments and not trying to shelter me from the realities of the world we live in, my parents shaped my values more firmly.