Tuesday, July 27, 2010

From the Vault: Moms and Dads

I've seen a lot of discussion lately about the depiction of parents in YA literature. Most of the opinions I've read are basically complaints: the moms and dads we see (when they're not conveniently dead) are cartoonishly self-centered, and often absent until they're needed to help the plot along by providing a ridiculous obstacle.

The arguments against this either find examples of richly drawn parental figures (Hello, Zarr, Dessen, and Caletti!) or explain that in a YA novel we're seeing the world through a teen's eyes, which would, at the very least, keep the focus on the teenager, not the concerns of her parents.

As a YA writer, I've been giving a lot of thought to this issue. How do I present realistic parents without taking anything away from my teen protags?

I'm a reader, and I usually to search out my answers through reading, but I think a lot of my ideas regarding character development came from television. In the 70s and 80s YA pickings were slim in the library, but television was full of stories about young people AND their parents. I can think of five off the top of my head that focused on teen concerns without skimping on adult character development. And though my examples come from TVland where the characters had at least an entire season to develop, I think if you separated out one episode, you'd still see a rich and realistic depictions of parent-teen relationships. Here goes:

1. Family Ties: Ex-hippies Elyse and Steven Keaton deal with raising (gasp) an uptight Republican son and two daughters, a tween and a teen. The show never falls into the traps you'd think--it's not preachy or dogmatic, but instead richly explores issues still important to teens: sex and pregnancy, drugs, body image, and identity crisis.

2. Good Times: The Evans kids, J.J., Thelma, and Michael, try to manage growing up amidst the violence and economic instability of the Cabrini-Green housing projects. Their parents weren't consistently around, but their presence was always felt.

3. Little House on the Prairie: Half-pint's relationship with her Pa was the heart of this series.

4. Eight is Enough: Seven of the eight were teenagers. The focus was the kids' shenanigans, but Mr. Bradford always seemed like a real--if kind of harried--dad, and Abby, the stepmom, is hardly evil and earns her PhD over the course of the show. Seriously!

5. My So-Called Life...is from the 90s, but is the freaking gold standard for creating richly drawn adult characters in a teen driven series.

I missed a ton, I know. Care to add any to the list?


  1. Family Matters, one of my all time favorites! Known mostly for Steve Urkel, but Carl and Hariette Winslow had a huge part in every episode.

    FULL HOUSE! C'mon! There were more parental units than kids on that show!

    Step by Step, The Brady Bunch, Partridge Family...all of these had strong(ish) parental roles.

    I think that was due mostly to the viewing audience - families. If you look at shows that aired on Nickelodeon where the demographic was specifically for kids, parents take a back seat: Clarissa Explains it All, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, The Secret World of Alex Mack, Hey Dude, Pete and Pete...

    I could go on all day, but I'd miss the 90's far too much

  2. As a writer of middle-grade, this issue tops my list as well. Honestly, I get tired of reading about the (conveniently) dead or missing or emotionally absent parents.

    That said, it's tough to balance fully fleshed, realistic adults with the need for protagonist independence.

  3. Very interesting post. I think it's hugely challenging to write about parental relationships in YA because the dynamic is changing so much from both the adult and teen's perspective (I speak also as a mom of teens) that misunderstanding the other's position is kind of the name of the game. I try to think very hard about where each player in the parent-teen dynamic is coming from when I write parent scenes. Thanks for making me think about this! - Stasia

  4. Judge not a book by its cover.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .