When the initial uproar over Drag Queen Story Hour at a public library in Sacramento first surfaced in 2019,
I confess I thought of the event more as a punch line than a trend. Those crazy Californians will go to any length to spark outrage. Don’t drag queens have enough venues to perform at? Why do they need space at the public library? But if there’s any lesson we should have learned over the past few years, it’s that progressive nonsense travels faster than anyone expects. I see that Drag Queen Story Hours are being held by at least three libraries within a five-mile radius of my house in New York State. And as Karol Markowicz and Bethany Mandel point out in their new book, Stolen Youth, “you might not be interested in wokeness, but wokeness is interested in you.”
Markowicz, a columnist for the New York Post, and Mandel, a freelance author and former COMMENTARY staffer, have nine kids between them. They chronicle the means by which harmful ideology about race, sex, and the environment is infiltrating just about every aspect of young lives, no matter where you live. To be sure, kids have encountered liberal ideologies in school before—whether through messages about saving the whales or how rich businessmen don’t care about the poor. When I toured an elementary school for my kids a dozen years ago, I heard a teacher ask the students, “And what do we like about Canada?” The answers provided almost in unison by the class were “maple syrup” and “everyone has health care.”
Still, these messages are nothing compared with the breadth and depth of the indoctrination that American schoolchildren have received in the past three years. If nothing else, Stolen Youth serves as an exhaustive compendium of all the outrages that families have experienced. Those who pay close attention to the matter might not find too much that is new here. But since it’s not uncommon for activists to try to pretend they haven’t said the things they have or done the things they’ve done (see, for instance, teachers’-union leader Randi Weingarten’s claim that she tried to reopen schools), providing a thorough record of this history in a codex that cannot be re-edited by young woke editors is vital work.
The issue of closures affected Markowicz’s kids more than Mandel’s. The former had her children enrolled in New York City public schools while the latter homeschools. During the lockdowns, Markowicz was chronicling the absurdities for the Post. Her children were made to stay home more often than not, mask outside, and even eat lunch
outside, sitting on the ground in freezing temperatures, all because of “the science.” Eventually she picked up stakes and moved to Florida. Mandel found that, even though she was able to continue homeschooling, her children were shut out of museums, playgrounds, zoos, and all of the other institutions that allow kids to learn and play outside the classroom.
Mothers who objected to these policies, despite all evidence suggesting that they were not just unnecessary but damaging, were shouted down. As Mandel and Markowicz write, “Weingarten was the ringleader but she wasn’t the whole circus. The media helped. Stories were framed to portray schools as far more dangerous than they were.” And then there were the astounding claims that these policies were being adopted in the name of equity, even as it was clear that poor children and racial minorities in particular were suffering more than others from the lockdowns.
Both women were confronted with woke ideology outside of schools as well. Much of Stolen Youth is devoted to confronting harmful messages about sex and gender. And they are ubiquitous. The authors tell the story of a mother from Staten Island whose second-grader was read a story about whether an avocado is a fruit or a vegetable: “While in the past this kind of conversation may lead to a child imagining themselves as an astronaut or a firefighter, in our current era, this led directly to what gender the child identifies with and how he or she wishes to be perceived by the class.”
Stolen Youth recounts how this issue has infected the world of publishing, such that an extraordinary percentage of children’s books now contains this theme. One young-adult author described how agents tell authors, “If only you had a gay or trans character in this book, maybe we could sell this.” The author continues: “They’re messing with the art in order to shoe-horn these characters in.” Perhaps the most amusing of these stories is a book about a trans character named George. Six years after George was first published, Scholastic changed the title of the book to Melissa in order to “respect Melissa…and all trans people.” Respecting the gender identities of fictional characters? Are these people for real?
Sadly, they are. Trying to find a work of recent fiction that is appropriate for children is becoming more and more difficult. One book, Mamas Love Their Babies, aimed at kids ages 4–8, includes portrayals of women who fly airplanes, mop floors…and dance at strip clubs. I have to say that the complaint Markowicz and Mandel issue against a popular series called Ivy and Bean for including characters that “have poor manners and bad attitudes” seems odd, but most of their anger is legitimate. And the advice to check the one-star reviews on Amazon is a clever way of understanding what’s going wrong in these volumes. You may not agree with the reviews, but they will often reveal what’s really going on in the pages of these books—saving you from having to read each one.
And it is not just the blatantly inappropriate content. It’s also the critical race theory that has worked its way into so many children’s books. The authors correctly note that when we publish “children’s li-terature obsessed with race to the exclusion of everything else…we strip black children of the ability to see themselves as anything but their race, and we strip children of other races of seeing their black friends as individuals.”
Mandel and Markowicz are right that “shielding kids is a full-time job.” Wherever you decide to draw the line, kids are constantly assaulted by messages from their friends and the culture. For parents with relatively conservative sensibilities, there are no “safe spaces.” Even homeschoolers want to take their kids to the library. And then there’s the doctor’s office, where questionnaires ask parents (and teens) for their preferred pronouns or whether parents own guns.
For Markowicz, whose family fled the Soviet Union for the United States in 1978, the indoctrination of children has a particular resonance. Citing a book titled Small Comrades: Revolutionizing Childhood in Soviet Russia, 1917–1932, the authors note, “In the first years after the Russian Revolution, the Communist Bolsheviks built kindergartens at a fast clip. The idea was to separate children from their families.” They anticipated a “withering away” of the family. The authors compare this with the idea that parental involvement in schools has, in recent years, been portrayed as an activity of right-wing radicals, rather than a normal impulse for parents who care about their children’s moral upbringing. They write, “It’s not a new concept to separate children from parents for the purpose of indoctrination. It was just shocking that it was being attempted so openly in America.”
What can parents do? Mandel and Markowicz want Stolen Youth to be a wake-up call. And doubtless many of the parents who read it will be even more outraged than when they started. But what are their options? “The hardest aspect of this is becoming comfortable with the idea of making other people uncomfortable,” they write. Everyone has to decide which lines in the sand she wants to draw. When your child’s first-grade teacher talks about picking pronouns, you can send an email saying, “In our family we believe that one’s gender is immutable. Please do not introduce the idea to him that it’s subject to change according to one’s whims.”
But as your child gets older, it becomes more difficult to object to every bit of asinine propaganda—especially since most of these teachers don’t see it as propaganda. I have objected to the inclusion of the book Jazz in my children’s classrooms and to middle-school worksheets on the Black Lives Matter movement. But I have kept my mouth shut about other matters, knowing that by high school, my kids have heard enough of my thoughts that they can consider these matters thoughtfully. They will need to do this in college and the world afterward. But I worry when I don’t speak up that other parents will feel they are alone if they object.
Still, children growing up in this bizarre culture are also bound to develop a certain amount of skepticism. Even in the most progressive of enclaves, it is not uncommon to hear kids throwing around the word “racist” as a joke because it is so commonly invoked by earnest adults: “You don’t like my sweater? That’s racist.” And the gender stuff too may have reached peak absurdity. Sure, they have a live-and-let-live attitude, but in my ambit, the mention of one girl who loves to talk about her pronouns is met with widespread eye-rolling.
Mandel and Markowicz are absolutely justified in their outrage, and they have performed a great service with Stolen Youth, but the oldest of their (collective) nine children is only 12. Here’s a source of hope for them: For most generations of parents, the cynicism and impatience of teenagers toward their elders is a cause for concern. These days, it may be the salvation of them.
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