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The Importance of the 'Age-Appropriate' Concept

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File

In my sophomore year of high school, I sat down with a graphic novel I’d checked out from the school library called “Maus.” The concept centered around the plight of mice who were coraled by cats into camps where they would be brutally treated and killed by cats. Eventually, dogs would come and drive the cats away, freeing the mice and ending their long-suffering under the rule of the cats.

While I’d heard a lot about, and read lessons on the holocaust, “Maus” really drove home the weight of the Holocaust to me. Putting it into a striking visual novel in the form of characters that would look more at home on the pages the funny section of the Sunday paper, the story struck home with me. In a way, it helped me understand the crushing horror of the Holocaust more than my teachers could ever hope to relay.

Fast forward to 2022, and “Maus” is in the news, not for being a stellar learning tool for teaching the Holocaust, but because there are parents in Tennesee who believe it may be a bit too much for kids in middle school, and want the book pushed out of their school. The entire situation has caused a stir with accusations that there is deep-seated antisemitism. Even the author commented on the situation, calling the banning of his book from the middle school “Orwellian.”

According to Fox News, author Art Spiegelman painted Tennessee as “obviously demented”:

“I’m kind of baffled by this,” Spiegelman said.

He suspected that the school board was motivated less about some mild curse words and more by the subject of the book, which tells the story of his Jewish parents’ time in Nazi concentration camps, the Nazi mass murder of Jews, his mother’s suicide when he was 20 years old, and his relationship with his father.

“Maus” portrays different groups of people as different kinds of animals: Jews are mice, Poles are pigs and Nazi Germans are cats.

“I also understand that Tennessee is obviously demented,” Spiegelman added. “There’s something going on very, very haywire there.”

But hang on.

The people in Tennessee aren’t acting out with malicious intent. In fact, the school board in question made it clear that they have every intention to teach children about the Holocaust, but the “Maus” graphic novel isn’t the best method in which to do it…yet.

“We do not diminish the value of Maus as an impactful and meaningful piece of literature, nor do we dispute the importance of teaching our children the historical and moral lessons and realities of the Holocaust,” the board said. “To the contrary, we have asked our administrators to find other works that accomplish the same educational goals in a more age-appropriate fashion.”

As a person who read Maus around the time I did, I have to agree with the parents of Tennesee. “Maus” is an amazing graphic novel that should be read by young adults, but perhaps not children. The themes are more mature, and perhaps children aren’t ready to see cute characters be treated with such barbarity and see such depressing things with such young minds.

There are scenes of mice being herded naked through a yard, beaten senseless, and burned alive.

These concepts affect the brain development of children and can turn into complex issues as they age. As CEO & Chief of Academics of Leapbridge Schools, Prriety Gosalia, wrote on the subject, mature themes can impair healthy brain development:

When adults expect young children to master skills for which the necessary maturity has not yet been formed, we are impairing healthy brain development by excessively stressing the child. If pushed and rushed, a child’s desire to learn will be hampered, his or her learning spirit crippled. When children show signs of tiring, giving up, or becoming bored, it may be also a sign that we need to adjust learning to their level. Age-appropriate learning can also help to identify any delays in mental or emotional development.

Knowledge and information remain useless, unless an experience or the skills to process the information are developed in early years. Because early childhood development plays such a large role in later social, emotional, and cognitive well-being, it’s absolutely vital that that this sensitive developmental stage is nurtured and sharpened by age-appropriate learning and experiences.

Throughout childhood, children are introduced to concepts in all sorts of ways, but many of them are done so through cute characters, many of them anthropomorphic animals. Children associate these cute animals with human traits with learning and they begin to trust them. This attraction toward them doesn’t stop after their years as young children. As they transition into teenagers, the love and trust of anthropomorphic animals remain.

Then, while they’re still young, show them the animals that they love and trust being tortured and killed.

More experienced and aged brains would be able to fully understand what’s happening, get the allegories, and appreciate the story-telling. Younger brains may have trouble processing what they see. It may shock and disturb them, and that may cause them to develop in ways that are unfavorable to the child.

This, of course, is just a lighter example, but the quest to eliminate the line of what is and isn’t age-appropriate has been put into overdrive lately. Sex is being introduced at younger and younger ages by everything from television to public school educators, oftentimes without the parent’s permission. The results can be seen in our society today. Sex is devalued and means less, causing something of a widening gap between men and women socially and opening the door for new traumas.

Holding something back from a child isn’t censorship. Child development is a fine line to walk and it must be done carefully in order to raise the child to be a fully, properly functioning adult. This doesn’t mean withholding more mature themes from them as they age. In my opinion, “Maus” should be available in every high school across the nation, but perhaps not in middle schools. I think books on sex should also be available, but perhaps not ones that depict sex acts or go into detail about experiences or intercourse. Pornography is pornography, even if it’s expressed through the written word or drawn like a cartoon.

We’re not merely discussing tradition or Judeo-Christian preferences here. We’re talking about the healthy mind of a child, and that should come first before any agenda.