When politicians start telling us how to raise our kids and what to teach them, we’re in trouble. Case in point: Your county school board comes up with a list of books to be banned from the school libraries. Such a decision is usually made on moral grounds, although recently, political issues also get involved. Let’s ignore both moral and political issues, however, and ask what parallels we can draw between banning books and coping with stress.
Banning a book is analogous to denial. Let’s say there is some issue that you as a parent find disturbing (e.g., Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century), and there’s a book about it in your kids’ school library. So, you say, “Let’s just get rid of it. Why burden my kids with the unimportant information that there was a time in this country when the KKK targeted Black people as undeserving of the American dream?”
In 1959 I was 15-years-old and a student in the 10th grade in a prep school in New Jersey. I had a Black classmate (first Black friend I ever had) and we were talking one night about racism. My position was that he had the same opportunities in America that I had. He showed me a little green book, and I said, “OK, a bunch of restaurants and motels. What about it?” He replied, “When my parents drove me up here from Louisiana, we needed this book to tell us which places would feed us or give us a room for the night. Most places would not welcome Negroes.” I was incredulous and said, “But your dad is a university president!” [Grambling University] My friend laughed and said, “His skin is black; that’s all that mattered.” I spent the next couple of weeks talking with my history teacher and getting some books out of the library on the KKK and Jim Crow laws. I even did a paper on it. The books and teacher support were there, but it’s interesting that up to that point I had had no formal education in these matters. I was naïve, living in a fantasy White boy’s world. The discussion with my classmate began to shake me from that fantasy world. But I always remember a comment the history teacher wrote on my paper: “There are two sides to every story and the answer is usually in the middle. Find the middle ground and you’ll solve more problems.”
The idea of banning books for school libraries is often appropriate. From a neuro-psychological perspective, the college-student brain is probably equipped to handle the complexities of topics like same-sex marriage; the junior high-school brain, probably not. But where we run into problems from a stress and coping point of view is when book banning is designed to serve an educational philosophy that values indoctrination of the young mind. Many parents feel that their kids should not grow up being told they live in a racist society, and that there are moral and ethical positions saying racism is wrong. The parents’ concern, however, is not whether their kids’ brains can comprehend the complexities of racism, but whether they should be exposed to such an idea at all. From a coping perspective, that’s not a healthy childrearing strategy.
Why not? Kirk has a newborn son, Ken. Kirk plans to teach his son how to be a man. “I’m not going to have him showing any of that wimpy girly crap, being sensitive and emotional and all that bs. Not my boy. He’s going to learn to be in charge, to be assertive and aggressive and stand up for himself.” Kirk is “banning” certain types of emotions for his son. He is restricting the emotional options Ken will have for dealing with situations. Thus, if Ken is in a situation – and he will be – that requires sensitivity, empathy, caring, tenderness, and other “wimpy girly crap,” he’s out of luck because he won’t know how to use those behaviors to cope with the situation. Effectively coping with stress requires having behavior options, but Ken’s range of coping options will be restricted. And that will cause him to get frustrated and angry, and he will blame the person who needs what he is unable to give. And Ken will begin a downward spiral of increased stress and aggressive actions directed at those he blames for his discomfort.
Politicians may ban books in school libraries for political reasons. In doing so, however, they also ban emotional growth in young people, and that will seriously compromise the future ability of those youth to cope with conflict. By the same token, if you cope with stress by banning (denying) some of your negative emotions, you will also compromise your ability to cope with challenges in your life. Don’t ban the emotional “books” of your psyche; they are a part of who you are. Banning them is self-denial – which will lead to self-hatred – which will lead to self-sabotage – which will make it difficult for you to lead a satisfying and productive life, and may even make you a danger to yourself and others.