Monday, October 11, 2010

Where Are the Parents?

By: Julie Daines

What has happened to parents in children’s literature, specifically the YA genre? As Scott Rhoades pointed out in our last writer’s group meeting, the main character in a YA novel has to solve his or her own problem, it can’t be solved by an outsider—like an adult. So, the difficulty starts with the fact that parents need to be moved out of the way. But have they been moved too far?

In the good old days, the parents were just gone; absent or dead, so the heroic orphan can begin their triumphal rise. The parents are magically missing or looked back on with fond regret.

In today’s YA novels, more often than not, the parents are reduced to blathering idiots. They are portrayed as too depressed to function, too busy to care or notice the dire situations of their children, drug or alcohol addicts, or inept beyond ridiculous.

But wait, you say. Some parents really do have depression and drug problems. And you’re right, many do. But wouldn’t that make them more able to notice the same problems in their children rather than less? Does it make them so comatose they couldn’t recognize their teenage daughter is pregnant?

In a study that compared women in teen fiction to real-life women, based on information from the Census Bureau and the Department of Labor, they found that 3% of the depictions were realistic.

In fact, I don’t allow my kids to watch most of the teen television shows simply because of the disrespect given to, and the stupidity portrayed by the adults.

Despite the problems with society and the decline of the family, there are still many wonderful parents and adults willing to love and care about teens.

If edgy YA novels are meant to help teens deal with tough situations, then wouldn’t it be wise to teach them there are adults they can turn to for help? A parent? A teacher? A neighbor? Instead, so many books teach them to turn to each other, or to vampires, or werewolves, or fairies, or sex, or drugs, or suicide, or …

Can there be a middle ground? If only 3% of the moms are depicted accurately, where are all the troubled teens coming from? Obviously, a teen can have good parents (or parent) and still have real issues. Isn’t there a way to write poignant novels about teens dealing with tough situations, but who eventually find help through a realistic-type parent or adult?

*Disclaimer: Before you say, well, you don’t know what it’s like to have a parent on drugs or to have been abused, or neglected…  I’ve had experiences too.


Taffy said...

Thanks Julie! I like the 13th Reality because there are parents involved.

Tiffany Dominguez said...

Even with so many broken families, I think it's important to have at least some kind of "father" or "mother" figure. A grandparent, uncle, or teacher--someone who lends advice/sets an example that they listen to.

I've read so many parentless series lately, it begs the question of whether or not we're teaching kids NOT to take their parents seriously (that it's okay to listen to their friends/vampires/werewolves for life lessons).

Great topic!

Scott said...

Another good, thoughtful post.

The problem with parents of young protagonists is that you have wonder where they are, why they're not helping. Even when there is an adult (and I don't think it's uncommon to have a teacher or other adult they can turn to), that adult has to be taken out of the way so the protagonist can protag.

I think the way parents are depicted these days is due to a couple things.

First, I've read several blog posts and other articles and comments complaining about the dead parents thing, so some writers are looking for alternatives.

Second, if you don't want to go the orphan route, then parents who are absentee because of one or more of the many kinds of problems common among real real parents. This has an additional benefit of adding more conflict, as well as a situation most kids can identify with, either because of their own home life or that of somebody they know. This can actually be a good choice, I think, in a realistic novel.

In fantasy stories, of course, there are many way to get kids away from their adult helpers, or to have an apparent helper actually work against them.

Unfortunately, a good, happy, healthy family doesn't make for a very good story, because good, happy, healthy parents will do anything in their power to help their kids. I'm not saying it's not possible to have a good story with good parents who are not absent, but it does create a problem for the writer.

Again, Julie, good post. Keep writing stuff that makes me think!

Scott said...

A good example: Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books. Her parents are alive but don't play very big roles in the story. She has a strong and influential (and funny!) grandmother, but still solves her own problems.

Scott said...

Oh, and another one: The Last Apprentice series. Tom's parents are alive (early in the series, at least) and his mother is especially important, but he leaves his home to be an apprentice Spook. The Spook is a strong adult figure, but one way or another, he's taken out of the way so young Tom has to do his own protagging.

Jaime Theler said...

The parents in the Jodi Piccoult books I've read (warning: can be considered gritty material) are involved in the story and with their children, but are struggling with their own issues and problems which blind them to sometimes clearly seeing their kids' lives. I think that's true to life. Of course, Piccoult's novels are contemporary YA. I don't see that happen as much in fantasy/paranormal YA.

Okie said...

I think the opening sentence/question of this post is a bit misleading. It asks "what has happened to parents"...when in reality if you look back at children's or YA lit, you'll find that parents have almost always taken a sort of "back seat."

Some early kids/YA lit:
* Grimm's Fairy Tales - parents are often spiteful or absent (Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Hansel & Gretel)
* Tom Sawyer - parental figures are there giving advice, but Tom and the kids are generally on their own
* Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass - Alice goes to a fantasy world where most adults are presented as loons or tyrants
* Peter Pan (Peter & Wendy) - kids abandon their parents to run off to a world where they never grow up and the adults are vilified pirates
* Wizard of Oz - teenage girl runs away from her aunt & uncle to go to a fantasy world. Parental figures there would be the good witch and the wizard
* Winnie the Pooh - no adult to speak of. Christopher Robin sort of acts as parent to a bunch of talking animals.
* Chronicles of Narnia - with our world at war, the Pevensy children slip into a mystical realm with some adults but where they are expected to take charge

So as we move into late 20th century and up to modern day, we see the same trend continue rather than change:
* Catcher in the Rye - definitely not a good example of a happy family
* Lord of the Flies - um...yeah, this book is often referenced for any bunch of unruly children without adult supervision
*Roald Dahl's work often includes adults/parents but usually just as charicatures
* Harry Potter - The Weasley parents are really the only good parental figures in the lot

So, while I think it's definitely true that parents aren't very present in kids/YA lit...I don't think this is much of a change. I think what's changed a little bit is that when parents are present, there is a little more notice taken of them to the extent that their existence provides more of a social commentary whereas before they were often just absent.

Rebecca Talley said...

Great post. I'd like to see more books show a positive relationship between YA characters and their parents. The parents shouldn't solve the teens' problems, I don't solve my teens' problems, but still show a positive relationship.