What To Do If Your Child Is Interested in Books With Adult Themes

by Laura Lambert

Photo credit: UpperCut Images, UpperCut Images Collection/ Getty Images

Kids are naturally curious — and we want them to be, right? To a point. And then comes the day when they’re curious about things that raise questions without easy answers or that don’t jibe with your values. Then what? Do you burn the book?

What if it’s Fifty Shades of Grey?

Luckily, despite a spate of hand-wringing mom blogs, there’s little chance you’ll have to explain BDSM to your third grader. There’s far more chance that your budding reader, male or female, will be begging you to buy The Hunger Games or something from the more mature end of the comics section.

We did it when we were young, right? Sweet Valley High in third grade. Forever. Whether your adult themes leaned more toward sex or violence, it was right there, between the covers.

And with today’s precocious young readers, it can start uncomfortably young.

Estelle Raboni, the director of teen outreach at a health center in New York, NY, says her 8-year-old son seeks out Marvel graphic novels with a fair amount of above-age themes. “I’m less concerned about sexual topics but more concerned with violence,” she says.

Sara Mortimer-Boyd, who teaches at Pierce College in California, says her son wanted to read The Hunger Games in third grade — and they said yes. “We figure if he is interested and able, then he should be able to read it at home where he can ask us questions about it.”

Later, in fifth grade, he wanted to read the graphic novel of The Walking Dead. “It has graphic sex and violence so I told him we would all have to talk about it and consider it,” says Mortimer-Boyd. He didn’t bring it up again.

Monica Cardoza-Rubalcava, a television sales executive in Los Angeles, CA, devoured The Hunger Games series herself. So, when her daughter brought up the series, Cardoza-Rubalcava was open to it, mostly because she thought her daughter was the type of kid who could handle the serious issues in the books, even though she was just in second grade. “Some things flew over her head but she, too, became obsessed with the series,” she explained. “She wanted to talk about it as she was reading it … almost as if she was validating her comprehension.”

Robert Williams, an adjunct professor at Glendale Community College, says his older brother introduced his two sons to graphic novels like Wanted, Watchmen, and V for Vendetta when the boys were quite young — too young, to their mom’s taste. But he was perfectly fine with the content. “I root for allowing them to fall in love with the act of reading, rather than discouraging them from reading because someone dies in the book.”

I talked to several more parents and almost without exception, the kids in question were able to handle the books.

Which made me wonder, what are we so afraid of?

I asked Regan McMahon, the book editor at Common Sense Media, the question at the back of my mind: What’s the worst that can happen?

If you don’t already know, Common Sense Media runs an age-based rating system for books and other media aimed at children, tweens, and teens. It puts The Hunger Games at about age 12, saying, of the violence in Mockingjay,“[T]een readers are sophisticated enough to understand that this is science fiction, not real life.” While most parents who commented on the book and its ratings seemed to agree, a few wouldn’t recommend the series for any age. One wrote, “And people wonder why children today are so desensitized to violence.”

I half-expected a rigid rubric of exactly what children can handle, when — naked breasts = eighth grade, children dying = 11th grade — but McMahon’s advice was wonderfully accessible and down-to-earth. “The thing that we always stress is that you know your own kids best,” says McMahon. “You know how sensitive they are and what they can handle.”

Obviously, the very youngest readers may have more sensitivities, and may be more prone to becoming anxious about things like earthquakes, fires, or parents dying after reading about it in a book. But even great middle-grade readers, with big vocabularies, who are reading way above grade level might not be ready for certain aspects of the content itself — and it’s not always sex and violence. McMahon relayed an anecdote about a friend’s daughter, a “super reader” who chooses a well-regarded book. “In the first chapter, a grandparent was killed in a car wreck. Psychologically, it tore her up.” For some kids, it might be divorce or alcoholism. And as middle grade and YA books attempt to be ever-more relevant to the times, topics like drug addiction, consent, homelessness, and other real-life-but-edgy themes may require some outside guidance.

For books that require guidance, there’s a lot a parent can do, says McMahon.

  • Do some legwork: Parents can easily research the content of any book that might be iffy or above grade level. “A site like ours can help,” says McMahon. “Goodreads has a lot about plot. Go on Amazon and read the reviews — it will give you a clue.”
  • Read it together: “If a child expresses an interest and the parent doesn’t think she’s old enough, you can say, ‘Let’s read it together.’”
  • Read it on your own: “Especially for older kids, you can read along, read it yourself.”
  • Prepare to talk about tough topics. “Be available to your kid in case anything is disturbing.”

When I was young, my best friend, who had older sisters, told me about the sex scenes in Clan of the Cave Bear. (I unsuccessfully scanned the book for them.) I knew about Forever. In middle school, I devoured Flowers in the Attic (Common Sense Media score: “iffy at 16”). With each, I sorta knew something was going on, but not why or how. I suppose the great shame is that I didn’t have anyone slightly older and wiser to talk me through it all.

Still, I came out basically unscathed.

So, should I find Fifty Shades of Grey beneath my daughter’s mattress in the coming years, I’m sure my knee-jerk reaction will not be rated PG. But then I’d call or text one of my wise mom friends, and she’ll tell me to chill out, and we’ll agree, laughingly, “Hey, at least she’s reading” and “Well, if she’s old enough to ask…”

And then I’ll finally start reading that book myself.