Thursday, January 28

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, January 28, 2010 29 comments
What’s the deal with adults in books for teens? Seriously? Is there some rule I don’t know about that says the grownups need to disappear or your teen readers will? If there is, I’d like to know how it came about, when and why.

The more YA I read with absent, distracted or downright neglectful parents, the more this bothers me. It’s not realistic, especially for the Gen-Y millennials. If anything, these kids are overparented. The term “helicopter parent” came into vogue while today’s college students and their younger teen sibs were growing up. Why isn’t fiction reflecting this reality?

I wonder how much the absent parents thing is us Gen-X and Boomer writers assuming that adolescence hasn’t changed that much from when we were kids. Because it has in some pretty surprising ways. We were expected to learn to adapt to adult ways of doing things. The parents and their marriage were the center of the family. That’s not the case with the parents of today’s teens. Whether it’s because of the skyrocketing divorce rate, or the culture of achievement or the increasing influence of “child-rearing experts,” parents’ lives revolved around their kids, especially in the 1990s. (The trend is swinging away from this, I think, based on the advice I hear child-rearing experts spouting now: nix the family bed, put a lock on your bedroom door, have a regular date night, vacation sans kids.)

The teens I know have tighter relationships with their parents than I had with mine. They respect and even like the adults in their world who treat them fairly and care about them. It bothers them deeply when adults aren’t fair or don’t care. They don’t just shrug it off as normal.

On the college campus where I work, I often see an extreme result of overparenting: enmeshment and immaturity. These 18-23 year olds call mom the moment they leave class. They can’t make decisions or do scary adult things like job hunt without a lot of hand-holding. They expect to be rescued when they screw up. Cell phones have added to this culture of learned helplessness.

Are we removing authority figures from our stories thinking this will open the way for the most high-stakes, zowie-wow plots kids will love? But is this merely laziness? Have we assumed that the only way to show kids learning to grasp their own competence is to remove all other sources of competence from the picture?

What does adult-less fiction do for overparented millennials? I’m not sure if they think it sounds cool or find it deeply terrifying. I suspect the latter. The process of individuation is going to look different for them than it did for a Gen-Xer like me. What they could probably use is more fictional pictures of cross-generational relationships that are balanced—not one extreme (the orphanhood and neglect they see in books) or the other (smothering enmeshment they experience in life).

J.K. Rowling is one of the few YA authors I’ve read recently who incorporates adults well in her stories. I think the balance of cross-generational relationships is an aspect that resonated with Gen-Y and made the Harry Potter series such a phenomenal bestseller. Sure, Harry is an orphan, but he craves parenting. Ron is a bit of a doofus, but his parents love him so fiercely, he never falls into despair about it. Harry’s maturation process is one of learning to trust the caring adults around him, to lean into their strength, to use their wisdom and make it his own, to follow their example and to innovate, building on their knowledge. Rowling is never preachy about it, but it’s clear that she understands kids have to be equipped to face real, adult challenges. This equipping process is a prime task of adolescence.

Tell me what you think of portrayals of adults in YA. Who do you think does it well, or not, and why? What’s your take on the “adult-less world 'rule'”?


  1. It makes for a stronger protagonist (at least this is the thought pattern) if they have to solve their own problems and one way to ensure they DO solve their own problem is to somehow disable the strength of the parent figure.

    At least, this is what I think. But I don't agree with it and made a point to have strong parent figures in my MG novel. It is actually one of the things that helped it sell. The editor made a note that it was refreshing to see a good, strong father figure. That made me happy.

  2. Tess: how cool an editor sees strong adults as "refreshing"! I was beginning to think I'm a nutcase to be bothered by neglectful adults in books when in real life I see mostly involved parents.

    I guess I'm arguing for a new model that reflects the realities and needs of millennials.

  3. The 13th Reality Series by James Dashner does a wonderful job with parents. The main character has one of the coolest father/son relationships I've ever discovered in MG/YA lit. In fact, I remember having conversations with people when I was reading them about how great I loved the way parents were portrayed in that series.

    I also love it that parents are not left out of the Percy Jackson books. Both mortal parents and the gods are included as major parts of the characters' lives.

  4. The main character of my YA novel has a strong and caring relationship with her guardians, her aunt and uncle. I suppose one reason why there is an absence of parental authority in YA books is so the teen is able to get away with so much "stuff" without interference. Parents are either absent, or they're made to look like bumbling idiots.

  5. I agree with Tess. It's hard to have the character grow and change, solve their own problems, if there's a responsible, caring adult always there. I think it's one of the hurdles in MG and YA, we hear all the time about how we have to get the kids away from the parents.

    I agree that it would be okay to have "normal" caring parents in a YA book.

  6. I was just about to write what Melissa wrote. I think often the absence of adults (or the presence of a neglectful one) in YA literature may be intentional--a plot device, really. J.K. rowling handled this rather brilliantly in that her teens are immersed in a magical world where there is more leeway for teens (indeed, they are able to get away with much more--they're expected to battle against dark magic, and this adult burden sort of seems to open the door to other adult-like behaviors and expectations); so adults can more easily be incorporated in the plot without hindering it.

    But I would like to point out, too, that (in my experience) in the UK, teens are expected to be more responsible and treated more like adults at a much younger age. The world of the pub is open to them throughout their lives; they can drink at 18; most begin walking/traveling to school on their own in the grammar school years; they enter high school at 11; they graduate from high school at 16, etc. The British teen is not coddled, in many respects, like the American counterpart. Perhaps this is an overgeneralization, but I think we might see a stronger presence of adults in British YA lit because their presence does not necessarily hamper the activities of the adolescent protagonist (who is freer to come and go as he pleases, freer to act without the hovering presence of overbearing adults). This is not to say that British parents don't care about their children, but it seems there are greater expectations placed upon the British teen--though he may be given greater freedom to act, he is also given more leeway to make mistakes and face the consequences. But this is just based on my own experiences having had an (almost) adolescent child in the UK...I could be way off base.

    What a great topic, Laurel. It's certainly something I've wondered myself.

  7. For the most part I think it comes down to the need for conflict. And I don't think it's just for YA. Most adult novels I read also have absent or difficult parents. To quote Tolstoy (wow! I sound like a total snob! lol)
    "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way".
    In my mind, it just makes for more interesting drama...
    That being said, I feel like a lot of the YA books I read have 1 adult that the protaganist trusts. A teacher, a neighbor, a friend's parent, etc. I've also read a lot of books where they do trust and love a parent, but that parent is somehow absent or unavailable at that time, again just adding to the need for conflict...
    I think if someone has really awesome adult/child relationships throughout an entire story, a lot of other MAJOR stuff has to be going down to keep the story full of conflict.

  8. It's interesting that you brought up Harry Potter because this was actually one of the major issues I had with the first two books, the lack of trust Harry displays towards adults. Granted, his sole relationships with adults prior to arriving at Hogwarts were with Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia.

    I do agree with Melissa, though, about the need for conflict. Loving, supportive parents may be the norm for most kids, but it doesn't necessarily make for an engaging plot. I tried to make the parents flawed but caring in my WIP.

  9. I think one of the things I really like in the Percy Jackson series is that he and his mom have a great relationship. I mean, he goes off and has these adventures without her, but she isn't one of those neglectful ignorant parents.

  10. Shannon: glad to hear that some writers have found a way to keep adults in the picture.

    Melissa: I get the impulse to have the kids driving the plot, I just wonder if we end up missing realistic sources of conflict by removing the adults, or having them, as you describe, being "bumbling idiots".

  11. Elena: I'm all for kids taking steps toward maturity, striving to solve their own problems. I just question how to do that realistically. Individuation for overparented kids is actually a huge leap and potentially very dramatic.

  12. Carol: I wonder if as a plot device it's so contrived that Gen-Y really doesn't buy it.

    Your insights into British teen life is interesting. My parents gave me a lot of freedom (access to a car, no curfew), but they also expected plenty in terms of responsibility and maturity. I was cooking meals and doing the whole family's laundry at 11, for example, and started working to earn college money at 14. Freedom was earned as a reward for being trustworthy. But then, my parents are really old school (Mom turns 82 this year--I was a late in life kid).

  13. Melissa: love, love, love the Tolstoy quote. I'm not arguing for angelic parents, but present parents. That they appear somewhere in the story and interact with the kids. I think there's excellent conflict to be milked with a generation of clinging parents and kids who need to grow up and into their identities as the world-changing people God is gifting them to be.

    Kids today would groove with more stories of conflict WITH parents, I think.

  14. Great topic, Laurel. I wonder if writers are afraid to bring too many adults into the picture because they might bore the teen reader. I don't think that's true, because good writing will snag any reader, but I think it's a mis-conception.

  15. Karen: Harry grows a lot in that area, doesn't he? Adults have harmed him, he distrusts them. The psychology makes sense. Over time he moves toward adults, learns to lean on them and incorporate their values. In the end, he's able to stand up as self-sacrificing and heroic because he was willing to learn from parent figures like Dumbledore.

    As I'd said to Melissa 2, angelic parents aren't necessarily what I'm arguing for. Conflicts within families are interesting and worth exploring. Dealing with a helicopter parent has a lot of dramatic potential, I think.

  16. Sherrie: You and Shannon have me intrigued with the Percy Jackson books. I don't read much MG, but I will have to check these out.

    Elle: Absolutely. I think it's a misconception that's generational. It's older adults who get twitchy that I have more adults than kids in my book. The teens I've had look at the ms. like that aspect. They find conflicts with only peers rather tiresome.

  17. I can't speak to a trend in YA lit, but you certainly did make me think! I suppose it never crossed my mind to even consider that teens today aren't the violently-independent type I was and grew up with. Huh. That, good lady, is a very good point, and one I shall have to consider when... uh... I write my YA novel. Or not.

    Still a great post, though.

  18. Great post. This is something I've been thinking about in my WIP and with my MCs Mom. I agree that too many YA novels have absent parents. In a way, I wonder if it is written that way so the MC can be seen as strong and doing things on their own. But, you're right- that's not reality. I recently read a series where I wanted to yell at the adults in the novel because they were too absent and the MC felt as though she couldn't have gone to them, when in fact, she could. I think it's about balance, in both fiction and real life.

  19. This is such an interesting topic. I think a lot of authors tends to shove the parents away on purpose so the MC can do things and make choices. I dont care if the parents are there or not as long as whatever the situation is it feels organic and believable but I need the MC to make their own choices and do things on their own even though parents would normally help in real life but you know...when parents step in and do most of the work it annoys me. I wrote a post on parents in YA lit a little while back that I think yu might enjoy.

  20. I feel unqualified to comment, but found the topic very interesting. I blog about Generation X and my blog's title is from YA - Judy Blume - Are you there God? It's me, generation X. Like I said - I'm just not that dialed in to YA - but I like the notion of more cross-generational stuff. I think of Charlie Brown - absent adults. So much like our childhoods.

  21. Laurel--so true! And it made Harry's losses all the more heartbreaking. Growing to love and trust Sirius, Dumbledore, Lupin, Mad Eye. Then losing them.

    Perhaps that JK knew what she was doing after all. ;)

  22. Simon: know thy audience, right? As writers we have to be careful observers and not lazily read our own experiences as normative for everyone.

    It's taken me a while to put my finger on what's different about my youth group kids and me at the same age. The parenting. My parents were shoving me out of the nest early and expeced me to stand on my own two feet young, while these kids' parents are more... nurturing, hand-holding, gentle.

  23. Kelly: Hooray for balance. I agree. Some parental appearance seems necessary. When the level of parent involvement is nil, that raises questions of verisimiltude for me.

    Frankie: The organic quality is a great measure. The whole absent parent question came up for me in seeing a pattern that was starting to look more like a contrivance and a cliche. I think some direct conflict WITH parents could add something to a genre that's been overly peer focused too long.

    Thanks tons for your link. I think I'll use it as a jumping-off point for a future post.

  24. Jen: Your Charlie Brown example is interesting, because I see literature for younger kids as serving a different purpose than that for teens. Teens are on the cusp of adulthood and are beginning to figure out the kind of adult they want to be and how to navigate the adult world. Seems to me they are going to have to at least occasionally interact with adults for that process to happen organically. If they're only ever with peers, they stay in a child world, it seems to me.

  25. Laurel I think you figured it out. Us GenX writers are writing teen books now from what we remember way back when. I think your post brings up a very valid point. The adults in my book are strong concerned parents, when I put them in a scene, but I don't have them in many scenes. Now I'm thinking of a piece at the end of my book where she gets advice from her grandmother and the grandmother directs her to someone else. I think I am going to maybe have her grandmother help her more. Actually, I kind of like that thought/change to my WIP. Thanks for posting this.

  26. GWOE: Glad it was useful. I think you're the first to get my drift about not reading our own growing up experiences as normative, but observing from real life today.

    Hooray for cross-generational relationships, especially with grandparent figures. They're often even less visible in YA (more common in MG).

  27. Great topic, and thank you for noticing that! I thought I was the only one, since I read YA while my kids are in the kid section of the library. Actually, I would read it even if they weren't there, but it gives me an excuse other than research.

    I didn't really realize that the Harry Potter series includes some great adult mentors, and now that I think about it, I have to agree that this may be the reason that those books are so popular.

    Most of us heli-copter parents hope for great role models for our kids, and hope that when we aren't there, that some caring adult will be a healthy role model for our kids.

    I am totally guilty of the heli-copter parenting problem as a homeschooler, but I hope my kids don't call me the second they get out of their college classes.

    I had some semi heli-copter parents as a Gen-Xer, and they had to purposely send me on some "independent" missions, and I am trying to do the same with my kids.

    My oldest at 10 is heading out to shop for herself by herself this afternoon . . . I'll be outside biting my nails.

  28. Tyrean: thanks for stopping by to comment. The absent adults cliche is something I hope writers will rethink. Kids raised by involved parents will have different challenges than kids raised very hands-off.

    Good luck with the independent missions. Remember the goal of parenting: to built a well-adjusted, confident adult. You can do it!

  29. Wow! Great things to think about. I really believed that we're supposed to "kill the mothers" so to speak. Get them out of the way so the kids can have their own adventures. How will they have adventures if mom rushes in, says no, and wisks them off to soccer practice?

    I'm writing YA historical. Back in the 40's kids were much more on their own. It's really the main plot of the story, but that doesn't mean all adults are dead or dumb. I'll keep that in mind as the plot thickens.