Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Why the Absent Parent(s)

Everyone who sticks around in the young adult book world has noticed this by now. Writers, readers, and bloggers everywhere have started questioning this practice, now dubbed a cliche. Yet nobody seems to know why it even happened, and few can come up with interesting and compelling ways to relieve this syndrome without damaging a good teen story. I speak of the Absent Parent(s) Syndrome -- and I think I've figured out why it's around.

First of all, look at what Absent Parent Syndrome is. The parents are dead, divorced, always working, in another state, etc. They overlook or misinterpret signs that anything is different in their teen's life. They play little to no part in the story. While the teens care deeply about their parents, as far as the book's concerned, parents are often the least important character.


Compare this to younger fiction. Kids' and middle grade books often place at least one parent in key roles. Even when the parent is only in one scene, something they say or do has great bearing on the rest of the story. They guide the characters, teach lessons, help mold the story. Cut parents from a young adult story, and you have an orphaned main character; cut the parents from a children's story, and you have a completely different (often weaker/hole-riddled) book.

Compare it to older fiction. Adults, while independent of their parents, are quite mindful of them. Perhaps they long to live up to their parents' reputation; perhaps they're fearful of letting parents down; perhaps they struggle to live their own lives while taking care of an ill parent. The parents may be present as a story character, or it could just be their memory -- whether as a great teacher and guide or as someone who left the character scarred -- but they always have a part, just as in children's books.

I think the reasoning behind this is in the real-life mindsets of children, teens, and adults. Children depend on their parents for everything, and see the world through the lenses their parents instill. They're blind to their parents' faults in many cases until later in life. The world revolves around the parents; they've not yet reached the age of thinking or providing for themselves. Adults are fully independent, usually with their own spouses and children eventually. They've balanced out after the hormones and insecurities of teenhood, and have found the right balance of freedom (thinking for themselves, being an individual) and family (considering others' opinions and preferences, making decisions for a group rather than just self).

Teens, on the other hand, stand on the ragged edges between the two. We must think for ourselves for the first time, and decide what beliefs from our childhood will continue with us in life. We must learn to provide for ourselves -- get a job, pay taxes, manage our money, make choices with the head rather than the hormones. All at the same time, we still live under the rules and decisions of our parents. In an attempt to learn to be the independent adults we know we must become to succeed in society, we tear away from our parents. Often this is where rebellion, anger, and misunderstandings stem from.

Many of us feel like the responsibilities of an adult are expected of us (getting a job and doing it well; paying for a car and its maintenance/gas), while the freedom of a child is all we receive in return (being told when to go to bed; having our eating habits monitored rather than letting us eat what we want, when we want). I realize that most parents almost always have the best intentions. While some of us try to keep in mind that living under someone else's roof and eating their food means following their rules, we often forget these things in our frustration. Not to mention hormones and the emotions they cause really are as confusing to us as they are to our parents. In the swirling mess that feels like our lives, we often tend to cut off others as much as possible to try and figure things out in our own topsy-turvy heads. No one feels this knife of separation as keenly as the parents who raised us.

Basically: Absent Parent Syndrome is cliche, yes. It's become a trite trope of YA fiction. But only when you dig to the heart of the matter can you as a writer find ways to begin fixing this problem.

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