The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

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Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Post by maybegenius » July 2nd, 2010, 7:20 pm

I believe Rowling has said in interviews that part of the overlying theme in HP is the idea that family is what you make it, and that blood doesn't always mean family. Vernon and Petunia were Harry's blood kin, but they weren't his family. He formed his own - he found a brother in Ron, a sister in Hermione, (arguably) parents in Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, a father/grandfather in Dumbledore. One of my favorite contrasts in the series is Harry and Draco. Draco isn't just a spoiled brat - he's what Harry had the potential to be. Sure, the Potters weren't classist jerks, but Harry very easily could have been a spoiled only child, and turned out more like James (who was something of a bully, and also an only child of wizarding parents). The fact that he grew up without parents and away from the wizarding world removed that possibility. Which isn't to say that only children with wealthy parents are always spoiled and orphans can't be awful (I mean, Voldemort, hello), but that's how it turned out for Harry.

But, yeah, the Dursleys were almost comically terrible to Harry.

I agree that we all mostly agree, aspiring_x :D It really depends on the story you're trying to tell. The real question is whether the story would be served better with present and caring parents, or absent/nasty parents. Some stories are better for dead parents, and for others, it's just convenient.

Child psychology is a complex thing. Children and teens are, by nature, self-involved. That isn't a bad thing, it's just how it is. It's the reason why every teenager always feels like no one understands what they're going through. We can find solace in our parents, but when we turn to our entertainment, most children and teens don't want to read about parents. They want to read about reflections of themselves. That's why involving parents is so difficult - it's the kid's story, not the family's story. It's hard to strike the right balance between involving siblings and parents in a way that still engages the reader, and having too much of other people and not enough of the protagonist. The protagonist is the one that has to rule the story, and if the writer is making sure that happens, then how they got there is irrelevant.

Loving parents, abusive parents, or no parents - it's whatever works best for the story! :)
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Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Post by aspiring_x » July 2nd, 2010, 10:49 pm

maybe said :
They want to read about reflections of themselves. That's why involving parents is so difficult - it's the kid's story, not the family's story. It's hard to strike the right balance between involving siblings and parents in a way that still engages the reader, and having too much of other people and not enough of the protagonist. The protagonist is the one that has to rule the story, and if the writer is making sure that happens, then how they got there is irrelevant.

and i think that is a very good point. the story DOES need to be about the kid. but nice parents in the background who trust the kid , doesn't make it any less about the kid. especially for YA. i do see the argument about how difficult it would be for parental characters to stay in the background for MG and younger. but teens live more private lives, they naturally spend more time away from their parents, don't tell their parents every little thing (and some great big things too). but keeping the parents at bay in MG, that would be pretty difficult (depending on the level of peril and the parents' knowledge of it) without whisking the child away...

i love this discussion! you guys are really giving me something to think about in reguards to my WIP and a couple waiting in the wings (one of which is MG, and i hadn't even thought about the parents trying to get in the way, and they would!) you guys are great!

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Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Post by midenianscholar » July 6th, 2010, 11:56 am

I think it's interesting that people talk about parents being protective and teens trying to escape that protective sphere to find quests, so to speak. I find the lack of healthy families in YA frustrating sometimes, and I always am encouraged when we see a good family in a novel--even if they're only in and out of the overall story.

From my own life, I have an amazing family--parents that love each other and siblings that are tight. But that didn't mean that I didn't have to go through my own challenges. There are some things your parents can't protect you from. My parents couldn't protect us when we had to move over and over again with the Navy, or when a younger sister got type one diabetes, or when I came down with another auto immune disease, or when an older sister's roommate was kidnapped. Parents can't protect you from friendlessness or culture shock.

I think it'd be interesting to see novels develop stories like that, where there is a family but the mc has his/her own growth, too. Cause even with an idealistic family there are going to be flaws and trials.

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Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Post by bcomet » July 6th, 2010, 1:47 pm

Emily White said:

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.
I agree.

I also think of Madeleine L'Engle. I remember the parents/grandparents in her novels as more like mentors or wisdom keepers, advisors, and role models, while the main young characters still had to find their own answers.

The parents don't have to be bad or absent, but they cannot do a young person's growing for them.

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Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Post by sbs_mjc1 » July 6th, 2010, 9:03 pm

I think that there are a number of conflicts that can force children/teens to "grow up" very quickly, such as poverty, serious illness (themselves or a family member), or an unhealthy/abusive romantic relationship.
Although I agree that absentee parents are necessary in some sense in YA fiction, I think they can easily fall into cliche. There are plenty of ways to have parents present, but unable to help the teen without being dysfunctional or oblivious-- for example, perhaps the parents are recent immigrants and don't speak the language or understand the culture well, so they rely on their child to navigate basic things, and can't really help their kid if the kid gets into a jam. Or a parent who is healing from a serious accident, and isn't available in a normal parent capacity, because they can barely pour their own cereal. Or the parents could just plain "not get it": they have no analogous reference point in their own lives for what the kid is going through, and either don't take it seriously or don't understand what to do-- white adoptive parents might flail and be unhelpful the first time their black adoptive child encounters serious racism.
The other issue, I think, is how such issue are written. Handled by someone who knows the experience, the "dysfunctional family" setup can work. Done by someone who doesn't "get it", the situation will quickly descend into melodrama or ring false.
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Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Post by Susan Quinn » July 9th, 2010, 7:08 pm

This is a fascinating discussion! Just before reading Nathan's post and stumbling over here, I read this post about absentee parents in MG.
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Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Post by Matthew MacNish » July 9th, 2010, 8:29 pm

This whole topic really hits home for me. There are several reasons for this:

First, I write YA. The MC in my only novel has a dead mom and a dad in prison.
Second, I'm a father. I'm pretty lucky that my 14 year old daughter still accepts me but there will be a time soon when she simply has to separate herself from mom and dad if she ever hopes to obtain knowledge of self.
Third my own mom died when I was 11 years old.
Fourth my dad was a drunk who I didn't see for 6 years when I was a teenager.

I think that the coming of age and expression of independence that is reached by a young person growing into themselves is the key at the heart of most YA archetypal tales. Think Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins and even Eragon.

Does having even one supportive and half way normal parent ruin the drama of such an experience automatically? No, but it is much harder to convey this drastic change in a way that resonates with a stupid parent in the way.

The truth is my own teen years were full of turmoil. I won't go into detail but I did grow up pretty fast. It would actually make a pretty good story.

Are there successful people who grew a lot and whose parents supported them maturely all the way? Sure. Look at a star like Taylor Swift for an example. The problem is, these don't make very entertaining stories. Sure they are touching in a Biography but those stories are about the person's success, or great failure, not about their relationship with their parents. Missing or dysfunctional parents make growing for the kid much harder, and conflict equals drama, which equals entertainment.

Would I like to see variety in YA? Sure. Do I expect a lot of healthy supportive parents to start showing up in novels soon? Hell no. Though it would be nice to see more parents like Curt's dad in Glee.

Feel free to disagree with me, I'd love to hear more thoughts on this.

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Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Post by polymath » July 9th, 2010, 10:36 pm

I've not seen the variety of absentee parents in children's literature that I grew up with. Loving, supportive, encouraging, proactive parents who lost emotional touch as soon as they turned their backs. A big family divided and conquered by pitting the youngin's against one another and keeping everyone close on the apron strings for draft animal work. I wasn't allowed to date or be involved in extracurricular activities until I left home, except military science, and during the Vietnam war to boot when high school military science curriculum was as popular among my cohort as the Hitler Youth.

I'm an aging bachelor who's changed more diapers and bottle-nursed more babies than anyone I know, including the womenfolk of my own extended family, except Mom, of course. Cooked more family meals, babysat, mixed and served more cocktails than any kid I've known. Chores galore, not just taking out the trash, scraping and painting indoors and out, roofing, clearing land, stripping and waxing floors, handwashed more dishes than a restaurant pearl diver, tilling the vegetable garden with a spade, pushmower mowing an acre sized yard at one or another of the couple several transient homes we lived in--the pushmower variety without an engine, also known as a reel mower, shank mare powered--raking, chopping wood, shoveling snow, picking and canning fruits and vegetables, cultivated and wild.

The wild fruits often grew in tick infested bracken, bramble, and brush undergrowth. Cleaning fish, dressing and butchering game, scraping, tanning, and cleaning hides and skins. Long nights on quaysides fishing, trapping crabs and langouste and crayfish, gigging frogs, hunting turtles, cleaning shrimp, shucking oysters and clams. Snake for dinner more than once, shark, eels, snails. I don't like brussel sprouts, there's not much else I haven't had and liked, though some have been poorly prepared. Not my preparations, I'm a gourmet chef. I won't name some of the more exotic foods, but, grasshoppers, chocolate coated ants.

Baling and stacking hay, mucking stalls, back breaking days hand planting and harvesting fields. Dump salvaging for lumber and metal and workable or repairable castoffs. Name it, I've done it, except marry. I can cook, clean, sew, knit, crochette, weave, tie an eye splice in rope, marlinspike seamanship, and lasso a piling from a moving boat. Single-handed sail most any one too. Rowboating isn't as much fun when it's for work. Woodcraft and pottery I learned self-taught in my middle age years.

In high school, if I missed the school bus, I had to ride my bike, which took a half hour to get to school instead of the hour bus ride. The nearest library was about as far away as school, twelve miles one way. No, I didn't walk barefoot to school in blizzards uphill all the way back and forth.

My childhood was mostly all right, though, no fault of my parents I came out an emotional wreck. I'm self-reliant anyway. It was my peer cohort who made my childhhood life miserable. I was a rogue runt, a smart strong stocky polite and courteous runt other kids targetted for all their one-upmanship self-esteem building by tearing others down. Name calling that would blister paint, sticks and stones, kick and fist beatings from the boys and girls. But let me stand my ground and I'm the one in trouble. I "knew better" and could defend myself too well. So it was shut up and take it. Self-disciplined, self-reliant, but low self-esteem reflected in overcompensating for approval issues. I cope. Mom and 'em are in their twilight years. I've resolved what issues I had with them.
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Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Post by Mike Peterson » July 10th, 2010, 8:44 am

Agree with Wilderness that the tradition goes back a long way. Tom Brown's father was a mentor, but he was back home and Tom was off, first at Rugby, then at Oxford, well away from any help. Henty also got his "dear lads" away from their parents, though he was more apt to leave them with a widowed mother who was high on character but perhaps not as high on resources.

I wrote a newspaper serial set among homeless boys in 19th century NYC and consciously drew on Alger as well as Henty. MC's father had gone West to work, but his letters (and money) had ceased to arrive, leaving mother to pick up piecework to keep MC and baby sister fed. He, with the help of a street urchin, triumphed over the baddies, of course, and the "happy ending" was that he discovered his father had returned and was looking for the family, who had moved several times in the course of things. We ran an essay contest, "write the next chapter," and, of course, the reunion with the father was central, but we were stunned at the FURY our young readers (4-8 grade) unleashed on dear old dad. It almost distracted from everything else in the story -- the history lessons, the lessons in character and "pluck" -- because they were so angry at him for having been absent.

The next year, I wrote a sequel, with the father now home, involving a girl who had also been homeless, but was now adopted by another intact and positive family. Much of the story was a flashback about her life working for a cigarmaker in the tenements, with the current storyline being the kids uniting to defeat a bad guy. Judging from their comments, the kids were much more focused on the injustice of her life in the tenements and the defeat of the scam artist they came up against. And they liked the story, they liked the characters, they wanted to know what happened to them next.

But they didn't respond with the emotional involvement they had in the first case. I think it came across as much more Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew than Tom Sawyer/Great Expectations -- they found the second story intellectually attractive, but there didn't seem to be the visceral investment they felt for the first.

As I work on a novel-length YA story, I'm definitely aiming to create the memorable, bone-deep resonance of Tom and Pip, not the vaguer pleasantries of Frank, Joe and Nancy.

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Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Post by Sommer Leigh » July 11th, 2010, 12:07 pm

I decided I'm actually going to make a post about this on my blog next week, but I really wanted to be a part of this discussion here :-)

I’ve read a lot of responses to this question lately, and the responses are all over the board, but most of those responses seem to be grounded in the building of interesting, tragic, and conflicted characters. There hasn’t been much in the way of discussing the real world events that have shaped how authors are now writing parental figures.

I don’t want to give a women’s lib lecture, but when women really started leaving their homes and going out to work in full time positions and earn money for themselves, things changed. It was awesome of course, I wouldn’t be where I am today if I wasn’t allowed to do any job I darn well felt like doing. That being said, it also left a lot of us kids home alone while both mom and dad went off to build their careers. This one act really changed the fabric of how kids grew up.

The second event happened a little later when it became more acceptable for parents to get a divorce when they weren’t happy. The moment couples who hated being together realized they could start over, the fabric changed again. I don’t know the statistics off the top of my head, but we all know that divorce is as common as marriage these days. For better or for worse, I don’t know. It’s just the way things have changed.

Growing up until the age of 8 (when my parents got divorced), both of my parents had full time careers. We lived in a nice house in a neighborhood with lots of kids, all of whom had both parents working. I lived about four blocks from my elementary school. I walked to and from school every day. I walked to my Girl Scout group, the park, the penny candy store when I was allowed to cross the street alone, to the local pool, to swim practice, and to all of my friends’ houses. I had a plethora of neighbors’ yards to play in and an active Only-Child imagination. I was running around the neighborhood like a wild thing until after dark. As much as I love my parents, in many ways I raised myself.

I mean, I got myself to school and back home. I did my homework on my own, heated up leftovers or ate Kids Cuisines for dinner. When I participated in tomboyish and stupid stunts that resulted in dozens and dozens of scraped knees, elbows, wrists, gravel embedded into palms and shins, sunburned noses and black eyes, I limped myself into the backyard and administered all the first aid knowledge I had by rinsing off my wounds with the garden hose. When I was navigating the tumultuous waters of my first (and second and third) crushes, my first kiss, the first time my bike was stolen, my first (and second and third) fight, the first time a best friend moved away…I dealt with it all on my own.

I’m 30 years old now and all but a very few of my current friends and old high school friends have stories different from mine. I think we were one of the very first generations to really see both of our parents working incredibly long days, certainly one of the very first groups to experience a high number of divorces and step-families enter the picture. I don’t think it is necessarily weird that so many writers around my age group are writing about protagonists whose parents are conveniently missing.

In our real lives, they were probably just very busy, but that translates into tragic deaths, eccentric and irresponsible artistic mothers, fathers who have another family or parents who are horrible and awful and selfish and cruel. These character parents have been exaggerated for the story, but I think it comes from the real life experiences of my generation adventuring on our own and feeling out the world all by ourselves.

I think that because the fabric of the real world changed so drastically, we are now seeing the fabric of our coming-of-age stories changing as well.
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Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Post by aspiring_x » July 12th, 2010, 7:25 am

interesting take Sommer! that IS how it was for our generation growing up.

i just wonder what happened to make everyone exaggerate busy-working parents who love their kid into abusive- dead parents? there is an element of romanticism in tradgedy... i wonder if that is part of it? i wonder if some writers think that the only way their characters can be interesting is if they've had a tragic life? i don't know.

i hate the word cliche with a passion! but i sort of feel like the dead/ abusive parent plotline is becoming one? something we just dash on the paper because it comes so easily, naturally- even though it's been done to death... a big chunk of that comes from the way the world has changed and the influence of what we have read. what an interesting take on it sommer!

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Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Post by Nomad0404 » July 13th, 2010, 9:17 am

In my WP.

I have an absent parent. However, they are replaced by other autority figures in the MCs life.

Dad is off fighting in WWII, Mum is doing some strange, clandestine work with the MCs Uncle and then the MC becomes one of the most important factors in winning the war.

Mum then has to decide to let the MC fight in the war even though he is only 13 and knowing she could loose her husband and only child.

Throughout the book the MC struggles with all of the adults who have a say over what he must and must not do as not only does he have to obey his mother he is also part of the air force chain of command and then there's the friction between his mother and the senior officers to deal with. Eventually he flees the situation because nobody will take his view point seriously - only to get dragged back in by emotional blackmail and a sense of responsibility.

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Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Post by Nathan Bransford » July 14th, 2010, 10:01 pm

This is such a great thread. I don't have anything too insightful to add to what has been said, but I too have written an absent parent into JACOB WONDERBAR. I come from a stable family with both parents and so it's not based on anything from my real life. It's more of a choice driven, I think, from the fact that when I was young I loved books about kids who were on their own. MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN, HATCHET, ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS... you name it. And just about everyone in Roald Dahl's books (except for Charlie) had rotten or dead parents and he was my favorite writer growing up.

I think middle grade especially is a time when you're starting to become conscious of growing up and becoming independent of your parents and genuinely admiring adults who are not your parents, and so an absent parent or parents and surrogate adults is an externalization of that feeling of nascent independence. Just my own theory anyway.

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Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Post by Crow » July 21st, 2010, 2:51 pm

One of the criticisms of my WIP (and rightly so) is that I have a lot of characters to keep track of for (a) such a short book and (b) for the fact that they get very little time on stage.

One of my solutions was to remove a parent. It created a lot more tension, allowed me compress some backstory that involved the death of a relative, and overall seemed to be the right decision.

I have one less major-minor character, but things are rocketing along at quite a clip. So for me, it wasn't a question of are adults/parents necessary/bad in YA; it was just whether they were necessary.

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Re: The Absentee Parent Conundrum in Children's Lit

Post by Ishta » July 21st, 2010, 10:15 pm

I agree with much of what has been said. I agree that absent/defective/ineffectual parents mirror a lot of what happens in life these days, with broken homes or families in which both parents work or parents who are simply too caught up in themselves to be there for their kids. I also agree that in some instances, it provides a convenient plot device by offering an opportunity for the teenaged characters to be challenged. And in other instances, it is simply what is best for the story. If good children's literature is about children finding their power, then it helps to have the parents safely out of the way.

I think also, though, that our parents in many ways play more of a behind-the-scenes role for teenagers. They still do most of the meal prep and set the curfew and they still provide a roof over the head and a warm place to sleep, but most teenagers function primarily without their parents. They go out when and where they want, with whomever they want; they can drive, and often have their own cheap second-hand car; they have their own summer and weekend jobs, so they aren't reliant on their parents for money to go to the movies or on a date; they choose and pay for their own clothes... They feel, rightly or wrongly, like mini-grown-ups with a curfew. Yes, parents of the modern teen can still lend a shoulder to cry on or a sympathetic ear, but so do the parents of fully-grown adults who have long since flown the nest. Teenagers reading YA connect with the absent parent ideology because it is a reflection of their own readiness to break away from their own parents.

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