When it comes to bedtime routines, I always let children choose which books we’ll read. I see this as a way of fostering their enjoyment in reading and giving them a chance to engage with a story that appeals to them. But sometimes the book a child wants to read conflicts with my perspective, beliefs, or values.
This came up for me recently where I didn’t agree with how the author handled a character’s response to being mad and aggravated. One of the characters in the story falls in a mud puddle and goes into the dry cleaners to get his overalls laundered, telling the woman who owns the store that he will wait in his underwear until his clothes are clean. The store owner tells him that he will do no such thing, but the man takes his overalls off anyway, standing there in the store in nothing but his underwear. I flipped the page expecting to see the store owner scold him, yell at him to get out of her store, something to call attention to his inappropriate behavior. Instead, the woman leans on the counter and smiles at the man. There was no discussion of how his emotions didn’t justify him doing whatever he wanted or treating people in whatever way suited him, nor was there any acknowledgment of the disrespect that took place. In fact, the story continued with images of them going on dates and getting married.
This may not seem offensive to some, but my stomach churned as I closed the book. The fact that the female character in this story was made to smile in response to the male character’s inappropriate behavior frustrated me. The fact that there were no consequences for the male character’s behavior frustrated me. Even if the messaging was unintentional, there is a subtle social narrative being communicated here that I felt was at least worthy of discussion. By this point, though, the child next to me was asleep, so I couldn’t discuss any of this with him. But it made me wonder how I would have framed the conversation if I’d had the opportunity. If you’ve ever been in a similar situation and were unsure of how to handle it, the below ideas might help you begin those conversations.
Share how you would feel
First, I would offer a contrasting perspective on how the female character might have felt and responded. Young children often take what is presented in books at face value, so if the author or illustrator has expressed something you disagree with, it’s important to discuss that with the child. In the case of a character expressing emotion that, to you, doesn’t seem to match the situation, it can be helpful to share how you would feel if this happened to you, and explain to the child why you would feel that way. This can also be a good opportunity to talk about how other people you know have felt when similar things happened to them. You can then expand the discussion into what you might have done in response.
Discuss the offending character
When a character acts inappropriately or in a disrespectful manner, it’s easy and understandable to focus only on how the character’s actions affect others. It’s important to explore the offending character, though, as this will help children game plan how they might handle themselves if they are ever feeling what that character is feeling. Start by asking the child if she/he/they thinks the character’s response was respectful or appropriate and why or why not. Take a minute and explore what the character might have been thinking or feeling, and how that doesn’t give them the right to do whatever they want. Ask them what they think the character could have done differently. You can also explore more productive ways to handle heightened emotions.
Explore emotional expression
Children, especially young children, are still learning how to identify emotion in others and in themselves. Through naming their emotions, they practice the important skill of identifying what emotion they are experiencing and how exactly it feels. They can then begin to see nuance in the way people express their emotions, and how people respond to emotions in a variety of ways. This helps them build up their ability to understand their emotional responses and look for emotional cues in other people. To explore this further, have them express an emotion through facial expressions and body language, then show the same emotion, making sure your facial expression and body language is different. The discussion can then branch out to the many ways we see and comprehend emotion.
As a child grows up, these conversations can become more complex and nuanced, deepening to include the social implications associated with problematic situations found in literature. But when a child is still young, these discussions don’t need to be layered with the intricacies of social issues. Instead focus on the areas that we all benefit from practicing: empathy, respect, and emotional responsibility.