I loves me some Calvin and Hobbes. I bought the complete box set when it was released a few years ago to replace my incomplete collection of yearly anthologies; Elizabeth was seven at the time, and naturally wanted to investigate this ginormous box of big heavy tomes. I was a little reluctant to let her read them — Calvin isn’t exactly a stellar role model — but in the end I decided that we could work through whatever problems might come up. Elizabeth immediately glommed onto the misadventures of the naughty six-year-old and his wisdom-imparting stuffed tiger, and for weeks she was completely immersed in that world as she worked her way through all three volumes and then revisited her favorite parts over and over.
I’m still trying to decide whether or not I made the right decision. On one hand, the strip had a profound influence on her visual storytelling style. If Elizabeth ever makes her fortune as an animator or graphic artist she’ll have Bill Watterson to thank, no doubt about it. On the other hand, Calvin is SO unapologetically disobedient and self-absorbed, and Elizabeth wasn’t old enough to grasp that it’s the very unacceptability of his behavior that makes the strip so funny. She took his egocentric life-view to heart, and began getting into whole new kinds of trouble at school. And the stories she drew started to take on a rebellious tone. Eventually I put the C&H books away and forbade her to look at them anymore. She was, um, dismayed and resentful about that. A lot. I was the most horrible mother in the entire history of child abuse, to hear her tell it. But gradually her behavior and her attitude got back on track; deprived of Calvin’s subversive influence she eventually reset to being a basically agreeable and cooperative little person. Several months later she explained to me that she had seen the error of her ways, and that Calvin was a lousy role model, and that she would like to be able to read the books again just because they’re funny and this time she wouldn’t be led astray by Calvin’s naughty example.
She’d been doing very well at school, so I agreed to let her get the box set out again.
And within a few weeks history was repeating itself. Trouble at school, a difficult attitude at home, insurrection in her stories. Away went the books again.
But here’s the thing: I don’t like censorship. I never have. This goes back to my own childhood, when my mother used to try to control our very thoughts by insanely strict limiting of the information we received. She never EVER responded to a straight question with a straight answer. Her parenting mantra was “You don’t have to understand, you just have to obey.” Because of that, I stumbled into adulthood knowing precious little of anything useful about being a grownup. I had to UNlearn most of what she’d taught me before I could even begin to get along with my fellow humans in any kind of productive manner. My twenties were spent coming to terms with the profound disfunction of my upbringing; my thirties were spent rebuilding myself into someone I was actually happy being.
So, back to the issue of Elizabeth and Calvin. It rankled me that the only solution I’d been able to find was censorship of the book in question. Because let’s face it, kids are going to be exposed to that stuff their whole lives. Trying to shelter a child from subversive influences, rather than pointing them out and teaching the child to recognize them and understand why they’re ultimately self-destructive, is pointless and counterproductive and doesn’t do the child any favors in the long run.
So over the past year I’ve done a lot of talking to Elizabeth about choices and ethics and consequences and what makes a behavior good or bad and why. And last weekend I pulled out the Calvin and Hobbes books and we started reading them together from the beginning. Time will tell if this is going to cause more problems, but if it does I’m going to find some other way of solving them than hiding the books away again. I did notice that this time both kids were laughing at the sheer outrageousness of Calvin’s actions rather than admiring his audacity. About a quarter of the way through the first volume I handed it over to them and said, “Here you go, enjoy. If you start having trouble in school we’ll talk some more.”
So far so good, but that’s a secondary point. I want to teach my kids not just to rise above bad influences, but to face reality head-on instead of hiding the problematic bits and pretending they don’t exist. Sometimes love means giving a person room to make mistakes and then helping them to learn from the experience.
Happy Love Thursday, everyone. Here’s to learning from our mistakes and making better choices in the future.