Tuesday, December 28

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, December 28, 2010 15 comments
Welcome back to the final week of my countdown of top blog posts of 2010. This one appeared in January and generated some great discussion. I'd love for my new readers to chime in.

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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. Very interesting! I hadn't really thought about this. Something else to make note of as I'm reading.

    Thinking back on most of the YA books I've read, it's true that adults are often hidden in the background. Maybe in some cases it's important for the main character to solve their own problems when normally a parent would step in. If the parents were always fixing everything it would be a boring story.

  2. What an in-depth discussion on a thought-provoking topic. I haven't read that much YA this year, but now that I think back, the parents in those that I did were either helpless (The Hunger Games) or distracted and oblivious (Hush, Hush). I think it's true, based on my own experience and the people in my life, that the current generation of parents with children still living under their roofs is doing a better job than my parents' generation, in establishing open lines of communication and being "present" in their kids' lives. I also think there is plenty of micromanagement in parenthood, which is not good. I wonder what kids today think of all of this, especially what they think of how parents are sometimes portrayed in their fiction. I'm going to ask my kids today.

    Thanks for the nutritious food for thought!

  3. I've noticed a lack of adults as well. I think that adults should have their own part in a book, because teens definitely have them in their lives, and I think that should be reflected in the books.

    One book that doesn't have a lack of adults, though, is Impossible by Nancy Werlin, which I enjoyed; the MC's parents have a part to play in her life, and it shows in the plot.

  4. I'm not an YA/MG reader. When I read YA it is mostly fantasy and doesn't have all that angsty, modern delimmas teens are portrayed with. I know there are parents out there who are totally "clueless" and possibly uncaring in their children's lives, but I don't think that is the norm.

    My kids fight with me all the time over what I want of their lives vs what they want. And yes, they can't seem to make a decision on their own. I agree that over-parenting is a much more prevelant problem than under parenting. My kids are prime examples.


  5. Good discussion. It's easier to give the young adults more power to make decisions if there are no adults, so it seems like it's often a good plan to take them right out of the picture. Of course this reflects the real life for some people but certainly not everyone :)

  6. Jamie: I understand that having the adult be the problem solver makes a book adult fiction rather than YA. My concern is HOW one goes about empowering the teen. Working around or even with adults could add more realistic conflict than simply making adults vanish.

    Nicole: I think there's potentially interesting conflict not being explored, and that Millennial YA should be delving into the overparenting phenom a little more. I'd love to know what your kids think!

  7. GE: I've seen adult books with multiple narrators in which one POV character is a teen (Poisonwood Bible, for example), but never a teen book with multiple narrators that included an adult POV character. I've at times toyed with the idea of writing such a book, though I suspect it would be hard to sell.

    Thanks for the recommendation. I'll have to check it out.

  8. I love your post today! I think there's a tendency to shuck parents out of the picture because it seems like parents should be able to step in and help too much, relieving the problems in the novel. A little bit deux ex machina. But, I don't think that viewpoint is the be-all end-all. Parents can try to help and guide, but they can't solve their kids' problems for them.

    IDK, I'm starting to write parents more and more into my stories - notably, parents who are involved and care about their kids' lives even though they don't have all the answers.

  9. Donna: Fantasy has the trope of mentor-protege relationships. It's something I'd love to see in a contemporary story. Some lessons are easier to learn from adults who aren't your parents.

    As you say, clingy parents are more the norm right now, and I think learning to navigate that dynamic could make for a compelling book.

    Jemi: I think you've hit my main concern--it's "easier" to remove adults, and to my mind shortcuts in writing often lead to cliche plots, characters, situations. Keeping some adults in as live obstacles could bring interesting conflict into play, and test a teen's mettle more than having unfettered freedom would.

  10. Guinevere: I agree. I'm not suggesting at all that we need the parents to be problem-solvers. Rather I'd like to see just more normal dynamics in parent-child relationships--give and take, fights, power struggles, good and bad advice given and taken or ignored. I think teens naturally see all their parents' flaws--it's part of the individuation process. Learning to discern what they do and don't want to emulate in adults around them is what the most mature kids do. I'm glad to hear your work has involved parents!

  11. Interesting post. There is a difference between middle-grade/tween, which is still very much about family, and YA, which is about breaking away from the nest and becoming independent. I do agree that too many books make parents of teens neglectful, abusive or just gone, although there is a place for those kinds of stories, too.
    It would be good for all kidlit writers to be sure they need these kinds of parents for character development and not for convenience.

  12. this is a great point, and one I try to find a balance on. I do think there are extremes on both ends, but I do also think that kids have a lot of time when adults are absent, and that's when the "fun" happens... :D

    As for who does it well? I'll start paying better attention~ ;p But there were many adults in the Hunger Games books, yes? <3

  13. I like your point about how well J.K. Rowling incorporates parents in Harry Potter. I've thought the same thing.

    I agree with the other comments that sometimes parents are conveniently left out or uninvolved in the story so that the young characters can make decisions of their own. But I agree with your post that it's not an accurate reflection of parental relationships today.

    I hope you had a great Christmas and have a happy New Year!

  14. Tricia: Even in MG, I see this absent parent phenom and it seems like a trope that should be re-examined. Like you say, lack of parenting is the reality for some, but it's over-represented in fiction. I'd argue that if authors do this, they ought to show appropriate psychological effects in the kids who are neglected.

  15. Leigh: I appreciate stories that show natural independence where it's appropriate, as you say--places where kids would normally have freedoms. You don't have to kill parents for that to happen. I've read a few YA stories where it's clear the MC earned the trust and freedom her parents give, and when she screws up, there are consequences.

    Shelley: Happy new year to you too! I think some of the appeal of dystopian books is that they show controlling authority figures teens must learn to work around--which would feel familiar to kids with helicopter parents. I'm wondering if we need to disguise this dynamic, or can we deal with it more directly in realistic stories?