Questioning a book’s content with my toddler

Happy New Year, Striving Parents! I don’t know about y’all, but I’m happy to have the holidays behind me and am feeling recharged after taking some much needed time to be with family. I hope 2016 is off to a good start for you.

In preparation for the deluge of toys and books I knew my children would receive over the holidays, I took the opportunity to do some purging and donating prior to the start of the season. While organizing the play area, my 3-year-old son found a book behind the bookshelf entitled, “Even Firefighters Go to the Potty” and excitedly asked me to read it.

I immediately recognized the book as one I meant to remove from our library long ago. The content is cute at first glance; the flip book shows various professionals such as construction workers, firefighters, doctors and more using the potty to demonstrate that, for example, “even firefighters go to the potty”. The book appears racially diverse, with both children and adults of color included in the illustrations. Upon further inspection, however, the content is revealed to be very male-centric (nine out of ten professionals are male) and racist (the only black professional is the whistling waiter washing his hands and there is a baseball pitcher whose race is ambiguous). Thanks to Sachi Feris’ website, Raising Race Conscious Children, I’ve gained access to some wonderful modeling around how to question media that is racist, sexist or otherwise offensive with children. I used the rediscovery of this book as an opportunity to discuss my reactions to its content with my son.

I took the book from his hands and said “Oh, I remember how much I don’t like this book.”

“Why not?” he replied.

“Because this book shows lots of different jobs people can have and almost all of the characters are men with peachy skin that we call white. In real life, men and women with black, brown or white skin could have any one of these jobs.”

“But they all know how to go to the potty,” he replied, understanding the main point of the book.

“Yes, that’s true. Everyone uses the potty. But look here,” I said, flipping through the pages. “I don’t like how this book shows men with white skin having most of these jobs. I don’t think we should read this anymore. We have lots of other books. Let’s pick another one to read.”

“Okay,” he agreed.

The conversation was short and I purposely decided to keep the message simple. As Sachi Feris notes in her strategies “challenging stereotypes” and “speaking to images that make you uncomfortable“, simply stating “I don’t like that” can be quite powerful and let your child know what they are seeing is not a message you agree with.

My son grasped the main theme of the book, which is that all people use the restroom, but it was the subliminal message around who possesses what jobs that concerned me. In the past, I’ve overheard my son repeating to his grandparents or a neighbor previous feedback I’ve given around questionable messages in books or television programs, so I know he absorbs what I’m saying to a certain extent. I wanted him to understand that the book was not an accurate representation of our country’s workforce and to depict the majority of professionals as white and male was problematic.

Even though I had meant to remove “Even Firefighters Go To the Potty” from our library, finding it provided an opportunity to question media with my son and involve him in my decision to no longer read the book. In the future, however, I’d much rather have a conversation about diversity in the workforce with a book that positively demonstrates that diversity.

At this point in my children’s lives, my husband and I are in complete control over what content they are exposed to. I believe it’s important to curate our children’s’ library to reflect our greater community and question the subliminal or overt messages we stumble upon that reinforce stereotypes or make us uncomfortable. Some day, our children will have stronger opinions about the toys and books they desire and more in-depth conversations will need to happen as we decide which items are allowed in our house. For now, the responsibility is ours alone.

Have you had any encounters with your kids where you needed to question the content of a book? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!


3 thoughts on “Questioning a book’s content with my toddler

  1. Kate Orson says:

    great that you were able to have this conversation with him. At least then if he comes across rasicsm and sexism in life he will have some sort of framework for thinking critically about it. My daughter was asking the other day to watch the new thomas the tank engine rather than the old version, which she said didn’t have enough girls in. I think it made her sad.


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