Wait…WHAT Is “A” For?

A is for Activist. Or…no wait, turns out A is for Apologetics. No matter what your cultural politics, it seems everyone wants to indoctrinate the children. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, that’s just not how education really works.

Here’s what happened: I couldn’t help but notice the odd coincidence I stumbled across recently. From the progressive-y-est progressives to the staunchest fundamentalists, everyone seemed to be shilling similar sorts of books for young people—books meant to inoculate children politically or theologically against their environments.

a is for activist

A recent story in the New York Times describes the trend among lefties. Board books such as A Is for Activist have sold tens of thousands of copies. As one bookseller noted, prog parents seem to want to protect their children from Trumpism. As she put it,

When racist, misogynistic and hateful rhetoric has become mainstream, offering affirming and respectful messages to my children seems more urgent than ever.

The books offer cute lines for young readers, stuff like this:

‘F’ is for Feminist. For fairness in our pay.

‘J’ is for Justice! Justicia for all.

L-G-B-T-Q! Love who you choose.

Who buys such stuff? Progressive parents who worry that their children might not come to these conclusions on their own. As one mother told the Times,

Because we are a white, heterosexual, cisgender family living in a racially homogeneous area…we strove to have people of color in our books, or families, maybe, with two dads or two moms.

Will it work? Not really. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t shared across culture-war trench lines.

Among his summer outreach projects, for example, creationist impresario Ken Ham announced a new set of books for fundamentalist youth. Instead of A being for Activist, though, Ham’s books make A for Apologetics. (B, by the by, is for “Biblical Authority.” C is for “Chronological.”)AIG ABC

If we ignore the content of his warnings, Ham’s attitude sounds almost identical to that of the nervous progressive parents. Why do parents need new ABC books? Because, Ham warns, his “national research” has determined that too many fundamentalist children end up abandoning their faith. In these perilous times, Ham warns, parents and churches need new resources to help keep their children on the straight and narrow.

On both sides, parents are nervous about the future beliefs of their toddlers. Both sides worry that their environments are politically or religiously dangerous. And both sides hope that a well-placed book will make the difference between faith and failure.

And, of course, both sides are wrong. Books matter. But no book can turn any child into something he or she is not. No kid today, for example, would turn into a Puritan if he or she stumbled across the New England Primer.


Whoops! Turns out “A” is actually for “Adam’s Fall.”

Rather, books—like formal schooling itself—are only a small part of the education of young people. If progressive parents raise their children in a homogenous, anti-diversity community, their children will probably think those values are right on. And if fundamentalists raise their children to inquire deeply into their faith, those children will probably grow up to do so.

Leave a comment


  1. Dan

     /  July 14, 2017

    So you agree with both sides, that outcomes with kids can be controlled, with the right mix of aligned parental and community influences? No parent really thinks books alone will accomplish anything. Neglectful or insecure parents who are afraid or unwilling to have a real relationship with their kids will always create a market for publishers of moral instruction, “self-help,” etc.

    I agree with you that trying to program kids doesn’t work, but what you end up saying is that environment will trump parenting even when it tries to exercise influence. This is empirically false.

    Kids raised in an environment that’s at odds with their parents, will side with their parents anyway — even if the parents are largely in the wrong, or dysfunction, or abusive. (That won’t help, but it takes a lot to turn dependents against their family before they are independent.)

    The mass majority of teenagers enter college with the views of their parents, and the exceptions prove the rule. The precocious and the intellectual rebels are both the curious questioners professors love and tend to adopt as “their kids.” (Those kids are coming from very supportive, non-authoritarian families or reacting to a closed, controlling background.) Like The Breakfast Club, every young person has a those two roles in them, and there is a window of time during their first semi-independent living that young people may change their views through intellectual and social exploration. This usually has to do with their peer group influences, which may or may align with what they’re reading and being taught. People may align with or react against a strong influence, however, and sometimes the reversals come much later. Concurrently, the young adult and their parents are having to get to know each other as adults, in a new relationship usually marked by conflict that starts in the teenage years and often carries on a very long time.

    That’s too complex of a system for any strong outcome predictions, but I think we do know what produces mature individuals who take responsibility for themselves, no matter what their stated “beliefs” are. Maturation as a process of individuation and self-differentiation is assisted by mature adults who understand the process, have gone through it, and know not to over-steer or panic. Never talking down to kids, of any age, is key. “I’m on your side, I’m with you, I have no frikkin clue either, but here are my experiences, questions, doubts, and fears…” That is the kind of implicit messaging of a friend, and you cannot fake it, bottle it, program it, or make an app or curriculum for it.

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