The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

The writing process, writing advice, and updates on your work in progress

The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Postby maybegenius » 30 Jun 2010, 12:23

I recently wrote a blog post about my take on the absentee parent issue in children's (particularly YA) lit. Apparently there was something in the water this week, because it was similarly written about here, and a post on adults still being big kids was posted here, and both inspired quite a bit of discussion. So naturally I thought I'd bring it to the Bransforums!

This was my position from my blog:

Another major factor in YA and MG literature is allowing the characters to fight their own battles. It's a very common theme in YA for parents to be absent, abusive, oblivious, or otherwise useless. There's actually a reason for this, other than the obvious ready-made angst factor. You see, for a story to truly be centered around an underage MC, they have to do everything themselves. Parents, guardians, and other adults can't do it for them.

The protagonist holds the power. This may mean they disregard the wishes of authority figures, or have to pull themselves along on their own momentum because Dad's dead and Mama's a drunk. This works because if there's one thing a teen can relate to, it's being told they're not adults. That they're not mature enough to do X, Y, or Z. That they have no power.

To clarify, this isn't about wanting to go out with friends to smoke and get drunk. It focuses more around decisions about their own lives that teens want to make, but are held back from. Young adult literature is about putting those decisions in their hands. The police aren't figuring out your father's murder quickly enough? Take it into your own hands. Dad is an abusive ass who has no interest in sending you to college? Do it yourself. The kindly headmaster wants you to stay in your room like a good boy while he and the other teachers hunt down the monster that hurt your friend? No way.

The point I'm trying to get at here is absentee parents aren't really about the dissolution of family and teaching teens to rebel against authority, as is often argued. It's about putting power in their hands. This can be also be done with a traditional family unit with caring parents, of course. It's just something to keep in mind - adults can't be the solve-all. The protagonist has to be the catalyst for the action, always.


And aspiring_x made a very good point about how there are often mentor characters in books with absentee parents, and why couldn't the mentor just BE a parent? Here's my response:

Others have argued because teens are at the point where they're discovering that people, including their parents, are inherently flawed, it leaves them jaded about adults and their family life. Also, (good) parents are inherently driven to protect their children, which means sheltering them rather than turning them loose on the world.

There are certainly parents out there who try to strike a balance between taking care of their child and letting them make mistakes to learn from, but it's a delicate balance. If a parent gives a child/teen TOO much freedom, it's argued that they're negligent. Too little, and the ability for adventure is limited.

Mentor characters are often not parents, as you said. Because they're not parents, they're not charged with the child's safety and well-being the same way a parent is. Their goal is to give the child the tools to succeed, and then letting them do it. Like Dumbledore - he gave the students the tools they needed, and then he stood aside. He wanted them to find their own power. As arguably the most powerful wizard in the world, he easily could have solved these problems himself, but he didn't.

Parents are automatically given toward wanting to solve problems themselves; it's parental nature. It's difficult to write a believable parent that lets their child run into danger. Not impossible! Just incredibly difficult. Which is why I think the tendency to take parents out of the picture is so popular.


Now, I am not a parent, so I'm speaking purely on an abstract/generalized basis, rather than from experience. This is my interpretation of how the trend toward absentee parents works based on the literature I've read and studied. I *do* think there's something to be said for people coming from broken families and then writing about it (I myself come from a broken family, so it's what I know), but I don't think that's the core reason.

What say you?
aka S.E. Sinkhorn, or Steph

My Blog | My Twitter | YA!Flash Tumblr

Represented by Michelle Andelman of Regal Literary
User avatar
maybegenius
 
Posts: 349
Joined: 07 Dec 2009, 14:49
Location: Northern California

Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Postby polymath » 30 Jun 2010, 14:12

I like ground-up investigative approaches of roots and cores and foundations. What founded the ideal of a central character proactively working to identify, address, resolve, and/or accommodate to insuperable dilemmas? The hero's journey is large in ancient folklore and folk tales. I suspect the first stories told might have involved heroic figures providing for the tribe: food, shelter, fire, protection, and technology, as primitive as it is by today's standards.

So what might be unique and fundamental about young adult hero and heroine's journeys? Primary self-identity formation, familial detachment, and establishing a supporting community independent from the natal or adopted family society. There's a primal instinct underpinning the latter, like, incest taboos.

The detachment process is in my opinion most unique to the age group. It seems at times an instinctual process. Teenage rebellion explores parentally imposed boundaries for weak spots. Parental smothering doesn't want to let go. Extremes are implemented. Alienation begins. Separation anxiety is lessened. Less contentious and more gradual institutionalized detachments might follow a boarding period or fostering period away from the natal family during young adulthood. Summer camps, summer jobs, apprenticeships, long-term visits with relatives and acquaintances. The later stages of detachment can occur with a gradual transition to traditional university, tradeschool, or employment matriculation. The human brain and body don't fully develop until about age twenty-five.

Abseentee parenthood in my view is still being assimilated into the cultural zeitgeist, fostered as much through literature as reflected in literature. Traditional family units are, well, traditional.

Contrarily, abseentee parents in young adult literature sort of makes a slight-of-hand authorial selection to overlook parental presence and influence in a young adult hero or heroine's personal journeys. The story is about the young adult.
Spread the love of written word.
User avatar
polymath
 
Posts: 1798
Joined: 08 Dec 2009, 09:22
Location: Babel

Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Postby wilderness » 30 Jun 2010, 15:39

Interesting topic. I'll have to raise my hand and admit my WIP YA includes absentee parents. I knew there was a cliche factor in having an alcoholic father, but it does serve all of the following:

* MC must solve their own problems without relying on authority figures
* MC can move around without parental supervision
* MC has a reason for angst. All teens have angst but it can seem annoying in a novel if there isn't a reason
* MC has adult responsibilities on their shoulders
* provides one more conflict for the MC; they don't want to be like their "bad" parent, and they desperately need role-models
* MC has a chance to grow up fast
* MC has a jaded view of the world

Some of those are similar to each other, but the point is that you, the author, have much more creative license as does your MC when you're not constrained by good parenting. I have to agree that the creative license is probably the primary reason for the prevalence of absenteeism, rather than whether or not the author came from a broken home (I did not) or is somehow trying to promote teenage rebelliousness (ha! like those kids need us to promote it).
User avatar
wilderness
 
Posts: 541
Joined: 21 Feb 2010, 16:25

Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Postby aspiring_x » 30 Jun 2010, 21:01

as a parent (and i wouldn't call myself a bad one) i feel an urge to protect my children. it's natural, my boys are still young. but when they hit their late teens, i plan on giving them freedom to make their own decisions- as my mother did with me. it is natural as a parent to want to solve your kids' problems, but that's the thing about selfishness... it is natural. good parents raise their kids to stand on their own two feet, to be contributing members of society, know how to make wise decisions, and to understand that success has nothing to do with how much money you make. afterall, they will leave our house someday, at least while they are teenagers we can serve as their safety nets when they fall instead of soar.

young adult literature is targeted towards teenagers- not children. (most) teenagers do not need abusive families (or dead ones) to search for their own sense of independence. as someone who did grow up in a broken home, i found the lack of stable families everywhere depressing. and it was frustrating that even when i looked to escape within a book, there it was again... all the pain. sometimes, i think we do broken teenagers a disservice by perpetuating the illusion that there is no hope for decency in adulthood.

that said, i think that the most important part about planning the level of absenteeism in your novel, is to try to imagine your character as a real person. don't make the family stable because you want a stable family in your book, don't make it dysfunctional because it's angsty and easy. write what should be written for each character and each family. some books need drunk fathers, some need murdered mothers, and some need understanding parents. i know my wip has different kinds of families, and i'm sure yours' do too.

i don't know. i could be wrong (often am!) but i don't think we should axe the parents just because it's convenient (but if it's natural to the plot, i'll lend you my sharpening rod). i think our mc's are creative enough to wriggle out from underneath their parent's/ parents' watchful eyes without the extra boost. afterall, most of us did!
User avatar
aspiring_x
 
Posts: 210
Joined: 15 Jan 2010, 07:44
Location: Marysville, Kansas

Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Postby jkmcdonnell » 30 Jun 2010, 21:02

Want to write a 'good' parent? Then ask yourself:
What would Sandy Cohen do?

Kidding. (Sort of.) Seriously, though, The. O.C. did a great job of creating involved, loving parents (okay... not so much Julie Cooper) whilst still allowing the teens to go off and have their own dramas -- and the adults did, too. The Cohen parents offered support, advice, and yet let their kids kind of get on with it, knowing they were going to do it anyway. Most of these situations, where the teens are left to their own devices despite this parental support, relied on the urgency of the situation (eg. Trey almost killing Ryan so Marissa shoots him because, you know, why not), a sort of fight-or-flight thing.

So it is possible, although current YA would have you think otherwise. Other good parents include:
- Mr & Mrs Weasley
- ... I'm drawing a blank. Help please?


(PS. I'm sorry for all The O.C.-ness. I'm re-watching and had forgotten how annoying Marissa could be)
jkmcdonnell
 
Posts: 84
Joined: 14 Jan 2010, 20:23

Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Postby maybegenius » 30 Jun 2010, 23:03

aspiring_x wrote:young adult literature is targeted towards teenagers- not children. (most) teenagers do not need abusive families (or dead ones) to search for their own sense of independence. as someone who did grow up in a broken home, i found the lack of stable families everywhere depressing. and it was frustrating that even when i looked to escape within a book, there it was again... all the pain. sometimes, i think we do broken teenagers a disservice by perpetuating the illusion that there is no hope for decency in adulthood.


This is interesting to me, because I've actually had almost the opposite experience. My parents divorced when I was about 10 - very messy, they no longer speak to one another, and there's a lot of resentment. My father was incredibly strict and controlling, which I found very stifling as a teen. I found solace in novels where characters came from broken families and were able to get out and do their own thing. I could relate, I guess. It didn't depress me, it inspired me. I ended up going to college 500 miles from home in part because of my craving for independence and inspiration that other kids in my situation could do it.

I also don't know that I'd say having absentee parents sets the precedence that there's no decency in adulthood. To me, it's more about realizing that no one's perfect, alongside growing into ourselves and becoming adults.

Just one more way we all look at things differently :D

jkmcdonnell - I actually think of If I Stay by Gayle Forman. The MCs family in that book is highly functional, awesome, and all-around great. They're "alternative," (mom and dad are former punk rockers), but it's a beautiful family unit. And it's wonderful and never feels forced. Granted, the core storyline of the book involves a tragedy for that family, but the parents are still very much a part of the story.
aka S.E. Sinkhorn, or Steph

My Blog | My Twitter | YA!Flash Tumblr

Represented by Michelle Andelman of Regal Literary
User avatar
maybegenius
 
Posts: 349
Joined: 07 Dec 2009, 14:49
Location: Northern California

Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Postby wilderness » 01 Jul 2010, 12:04

aspiring_x wrote: i don't think we should axe the parents just because it's convenient (but if it's natural to the plot, i'll lend you my sharpening rod)


To be honest, I don't see that there is much of a difference between what is "convenient" and what is "natural to the plot". Obviously, you may write a novel without absentee parents, but it is a convenient plot device. Plot devices will be "natural to the plot" if well-written. Stories often use convenient plot devices, the trick is to make them seem natural by providing verisimilitude.

In my first novel, I had "good parents" but they provided a sense of conflict with their stifling, over-protective nature. But the MC was supposed to be a bit on the innocent side. In my WIP, the "bad parents" provide me the ability to have a much more worldly character. In both cases, my choice in parents were both convenient, and IMO they were written to seem natural to the plot.
Last edited by wilderness on 01 Jul 2010, 12:31, edited 1 time in total.
User avatar
wilderness
 
Posts: 541
Joined: 21 Feb 2010, 16:25

Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Postby wilderness » 01 Jul 2010, 12:12

I'm a huge fan of the Harry Potter series, but one thing I want to point out. It always seemed very unnatural that Dumbledore didn't provide more advice, guidance, and protection to Harry. In The Order of the Pheonix, it is explained that Dumbledore suspects that Voldemort might gain information about himself through Harry's mind. I didn't quite buy that, and other readers have commented the same. So even having a mentor like Dumbledore stretched credibility that Harry had to face all the terrible things he did on his own. Which is why...you know what happens at the end of book 6! (That was "convenient")

Sorry to keep picking on the word "convenient". It's just convenient to do so. :)
User avatar
wilderness
 
Posts: 541
Joined: 21 Feb 2010, 16:25

Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Postby J. T. SHEA » 01 Jul 2010, 15:00

Interesting conundrum indeed. Particularly Aspiring X's point. I deliberately gave me teenage protagonist quite good and healthy (if a little eccentric) parents. But he still yearns for independence. He strives to join a great expedition to a lost city, is delighted to get a place, then horrified his parents and kid brother are coming too! But I send Mom and Dad and kid brother home before things get dangerous.
User avatar
J. T. SHEA
 
Posts: 449
Joined: 20 May 2010, 10:55

Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Postby Emily White » 02 Jul 2010, 14:14

Though I do see (and understand) the trend in YA to use absentee or bad parents as a source of tension or a way to force the MC to learn to stand on his/her own two feet, I must say I prefer writing the opposite.

In the WIP I'm currently editing, the MC was ripped from her parents and forced to spend the majority of her life with no one at all. Through the course of the book the "love interest" ends up being a middle aged man who becomes a father figure to her. This is what she needs, and he is the person who lifts her up to do the things she's destined to do.

In another WIP, the parents are present and perfectly normal, but that's where the strife comes in because the MC doesn't feel like he fits in. He's not normal. Though he knows he's loved and cherished, he often questions his place in the family unit.

I don't think children need bad parents to be rebellious, and I don't think they need absentee parents to learn to grow up faster. What I do think they need is to learn their place in the world despite whatever they've been given, good or bad.
Find out about ELEMENTAL, my YA Space Opera (available June 21, 2011) on my blog and ELEMENTAL's facebook fan page
User avatar
Emily White
 
Posts: 77
Joined: 08 Dec 2009, 12:25
Location: Lockport, NY

Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Postby wilderness » 02 Jul 2010, 14:42

I think in particular, in fantasy/sci-fi, where the MC is often taking on really big, evil, and and dangerous forces, it is hard to fit in parents. Contemporary coming-of-age stories are much easier, because as Emily White said, the MC is just trying to find their place in the world.

Can anyone think of how Rowling might have done HP with present parents? And would it have the same impact?
User avatar
wilderness
 
Posts: 541
Joined: 21 Feb 2010, 16:25

Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Postby aspiring_x » 02 Jul 2010, 15:19

i don't think anyone is saying that ALL stories should or should not have absentee parents. each story and character should be considered individually. i think that some of us are saying that having absentee parents can come in handy, while others are saying that we shouldn't kill off parents (or make them rotten) as an easy-out.

are we all actually agreeing?

my concern is the proliferation of absent parents. it's not just books, it's movies, cartoons, comics, EVERYTHING! coming across a non-absent fictional mom who isn't a nag (or completely shallow) or a dad that isn't an idiot (or abusive) is a rarity.

parents that are still married are rare, too. the kid's show my sons are watching just said, "half of the marriages in america end in divorce, the other half limp along in discomfort (or something like that)", and that's on disney. i wonder what kind of world we are telling our kids we live in. not that divorce is wrong, but it seems like we portray it as inevitable. that eventually their mom or dad will leave.

i guess it's a mirror of modern america. so, for some it might feel more relatable (maybe's point) but for those who read as an escape (and are probably more pessimistic- like me) it can seem overwhelming. but i wonder as we paint our worlds that could be, if we shouldn't stop and consider if some of the imaginary worlds we create might be better with some decent parents. (i mean decent- not perfect)
User avatar
aspiring_x
 
Posts: 210
Joined: 15 Jan 2010, 07:44
Location: Marysville, Kansas

Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Postby Emily White » 02 Jul 2010, 15:48

aspiring_x wrote:i don't think anyone is saying that ALL stories should or should not have absentee parents. each story and character should be considered individually. i think that some of us are saying that having absentee parents can come in handy, while others are saying that we shouldn't kill off parents (or make them rotten) as an easy-out.

are we all actually agreeing?

my concern is the proliferation of absent parents. it's not just books, it's movies, cartoons, comics, EVERYTHING! coming across a non-absent fictional mom who isn't a nag (or completely shallow) or a dad that isn't an idiot (or abusive) is a rarity.

parents that are still married are rare, too. the kid's show my sons are watching just said, "half of the marriages in america end in divorce, the other half limp along in discomfort (or something like that)", and that's on disney. i wonder what kind of world we are telling our kids we live in. not that divorce is wrong, but it seems like we portray it as inevitable. that eventually their mom or dad will leave.

i guess it's a mirror of modern america. so, for some it might feel more relatable (maybe's point) but for those who read as an escape (and are probably more pessimistic- like me) it can seem overwhelming. but i wonder as we paint our worlds that could be, if we shouldn't stop and consider if some of the imaginary worlds we create might be better with some decent parents. (i mean decent- not perfect)


Very well said. I can't even stand most television shows nowadays because of the way they portray husbands and wives. It's disheartening. I think kids need to find MCs they can relate to, but also MCs who's lives can offer a little bit of hope. Not all parents are bad, absent, hate each other, what have you, and kids need to see a positive future to look forward to. Otherwise, what kind of worldview are we giving them?

I think there are many ways to create a very good, suspenseful book. To answer the HP question above, I don't think I'd question the death of Harry Potter's parents as a necessity to further the book along, but I did often roll my eyes at just how awful his aunt and uncle were. Some of it seemed contrived and over-the-top. That's not to say I didn't love the series, but some of what the Dursleys did seemed forced just to prove how horrible they were and how we should feel sorry for the poor orphan. We could have felt sorry for him for the simple fact that his parents were murdered.
Find out about ELEMENTAL, my YA Space Opera (available June 21, 2011) on my blog and ELEMENTAL's facebook fan page
User avatar
Emily White
 
Posts: 77
Joined: 08 Dec 2009, 12:25
Location: Lockport, NY

Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Postby wilderness » 02 Jul 2010, 15:54

aspiring_x wrote:are we all actually agreeing?

Good one :)

aspiring_x wrote:parents that are still married are rare, too. the kid's show my sons are watching just said, "half of the marriages in america end in divorce, the other half limp along in discomfort (or something like that)", and that's on disney. i wonder what kind of world we are telling our kids we live in. not that divorce is wrong, but it seems like we portray it as inevitable. that eventually their mom or dad will leave.

Absent parents are not always drunk or divorced. They may be good dead parents, or good busy parents or simply good out-of-town parents.


aspiring_x wrote:i guess it's a mirror of modern america.

I really don't think so. My view is that it is a plot device that has been used through the ages.

Look at Alice and Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, Chronicles of Narnia. The kids were whisked off to other lands so that they can have an adventure on their own. Dickens had a particular love of orphans.
Last edited by wilderness on 02 Jul 2010, 15:58, edited 1 time in total.
User avatar
wilderness
 
Posts: 541
Joined: 21 Feb 2010, 16:25

Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Postby wilderness » 02 Jul 2010, 15:57

Emily White wrote: Some of it seemed contrived and over-the-top. That's not to say I didn't love the series, but some of what the Dursleys did seemed forced just to prove how horrible they were and how we should feel sorry for the poor orphan. We could have felt sorry for him for the simple fact that his parents were murdered.


I agree the Dursleys were over the top, but Rowling had to make sure that there were no substitute parents that Harry could rely on (see my previous post about Dumbledore). And I think she was using them for humor, but the humor may or may not be your cup of tea. It is aimed at children, to be sure.
User avatar
wilderness
 
Posts: 541
Joined: 21 Feb 2010, 16:25

Next

Return to All Things Writing

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: Bing [Bot] and 3 guests

cron