This week, the biggest German weekly, DIE ZEIT, published an interview with Germany’s Family Minister, Kristina Schröder.
The interview isn’t on-line yet, but once it’s available, I will link it here. Update: You can read it here. If you must know, I’m not a huge fan of the woman who introduced (or rather, was unable to stop conservative hacks from introducing) a monthly payment for women who choose families where one parent chooses to stay at home after having a baby.* I’m all for choice, but this cements an archaic role model Germany is struggling to get rid of even without monetary support in its favour.
This time, however, Ms Schröder “erred” on the “liberal” side: the aforementioned conservative hacks in her party, the Christian Democratic Union, are up in arms over her suggestion to teach children that God is gender neutral. Personally, I’m not too fussed. In German, with its funny custom of having three gender-specific articles, many nouns aren’t the gender they “really are”. The word for girl (Mädchen) is gender-neutral, for instance. I know this to be something foreigners can’t wrap their heads around to save their lives; it’s completely illogical, but… well, it’s the way it is. Similarly, all cats are female, all dogs are male, and so on. So personally, as an atheist feminist, I can live with God being “male”.
She also, however, made some remarks about books and fairy tales, and this being a book blog, I’m going to do some open-ended thinking about her thoughts here. Ms Schröder spoke out in favour of modifying some stories and books that come with sexism or terms that are considered politically incorrect nowadays. Her examples: the brothers Grimm’s fairy tales (sexism) and Pippi Longstocking (political incorrectness). Her argument is a familiar one: children shouldn’t grow up with stories that reinforce outdated gender patterns, and they shouldn’t grow up with Pippi’s father being a “negro king” (the German translation says “Negerkönig”). A similar argument is made by those who favour a politically correct version of Huckleberry Finn.
Here’s where the open-ended part of the discussion comes in: I’m not sure whether I agree with her or not. My tendency is towards disagreement, and here’s why. In my view, the brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, in their original versions, are not for young children in the first place. They’re extremely gruesome and I think a five year-old can do without nightmares about their grandmother being eaten by a wolf. If you wait with the stories until the kids are able to process them, they will also be old enough for you to explain that these stories are old, and silly people in the olden days thought women were weak and there to be saved by men. You can play with the stories, why not let the kids make up stories where the princess rescues the prince for a change? Likewise, a child old enough to read Pippi Longstocking is old enough to hear about why we don’t say “negro” any more. I happen to think that the language in Huckleberry Finn, in its original version, makes for great teaching material, especially in the classroom. It’s perfect to illustrate racial inequality and explain to children why certain things have changed and certain language is offensive. If the kids are old enough, a discussion on the evolution of language and its subtext can be really fruitful – of course, you need to have it in terms they will understand.
Of course, a problem arises when these stories are dumped on children without an explanation or an erroneous one. This is the glaring flaw of the above view, because of course, this sort of language or storyline in the hands of – even subconsciously – racist, sexist, or incompetent educators (parents or teachers) can do a lot of damage. Even the absence of an explanation is problematic in such cases, or an explanation that’s unsuitable for children depending on their developmental stage.
To me, it seems that “censoring” children’s books and fairy tales does several things. It deprives educators of being able to discuss the story and use its outdatedness as teaching material. Children who are made to engage with arguments against sexism and racism will be a lot stronger in defending themselves against it in real life. Secondly, “censoring” to some degree presumes that children are stupid. I think that kids who are educated in an open-minded environment that teaches them to criticise prejudices and critically review attitudes on a daily basis will probably be able to spot sexism or racism when they see it, and react to it. They may ask what a “negro king” is, or why the word “negro” is being used in the book. Or they might ask why Little Red Riding Hood is too silly to recognise that her granny isn’t her granny. That’s your teaching opportunities right there. Reading the original stories will hone their skills.
I haven’t completely made up my mind, and I’d like to know what all you well-read and reflected individuals out there think. Should children’s “classics” be revised to make the language more adequate to our times? Or should they be used in the original version to use them as a platform for teaching children to spot racism or sexism when they see it? Does that work? Or does it instill subconscious prejudice in little heads that makes working against such patterns more difficult?
*The Government makes it explicit that stay-at-home dads will also get the money. But the fact that this will reinforce traditional family models where daddy works and mummy stays home is so glaringly obvious it feels like we’ve been catapulted back into the 1950s.