The Compulsive Reader: Reading Rants: Bad Parents

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Reading Rants: Bad Parents

I read an essay in the New York Times the other day about parents in YA fiction that I wanted to share with you all. I found it interesting because it takes the angle that certain types of parents have become the "bad guys" in a lot of popular YA books.

What makes a bad parent in YA? I can think of two books off the top of my head with parents that just make me cringe--Say the Word by Jeanine Garsee and North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley. In both, the main character has a father who is downright terrible. Garsee's father is vindictive and cold, and is bent on getting revenge on his ex-wife after death, dragging the narrator through it all. The father in Headley's book is suffering from a career failure and micromanages his family's lives--to the extent that his wife overeats rather than stand up to him.

Then of course there is the classic example of the absent parent in YA, forcing the main character to grow up quickly, raise themselves (and any other siblings hanging around), and make their own way. These absent parents seem to be more ubiquitous in fiction coming out now (perhaps because it's more convenient for the story?), and I see less and less YA characters with good relationships with their parents.

I know that a good relationship isn't always realistic--parents can be frustrating and overbearing, and it is true that not everyone is a good parents, which can cause some friction. But, I've always had a great relationship with my parents, and sometimes I'd like to see books that reflect that a little more often--books like The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott.

So, what do you think of parental protrayal in YA fiction? Are bad parents believable? What makes good parents believeable?


Brahmin in Boston said...

For me, bad parents in YA are the ones who are so focused on themselves that they forget that they have kids. Alcoholic and abusive parents are included in that.

Good parents are the ones who know what is going on in their kids' lives but give them enough space, freedom and support to come to them if they messed up.

La Coccinelle said...

I kind of agree with Brahmin in Boston. It seems like there are a lot of YA parents who are pretty self-absorbed... to the point where they barely even make an appearance in the story! It's like they're there only as an afterthought, because we all know that teenagers generally should have parents around... but the author doesn't really know how to make the parents a believable part of their kids' lives.

I don't think the "uninterested parent" thing is very realistic (and if it is, then things have changed since I was a teenager).

Anonymous said...

For me, bad parents are the ones who abuse their kids. I don't know why, but most of the books I've read that contain the bad parent theme usually have the parent as an abuser. It can be domestic abuser or verbal abuser. When a character is an abuser, it's easy to dislike the character. Of course, it can also portray and give the impression that parents are abusive, which isn't necessarily true.

A good parent for me is one who takes time to get to know their kids, and are interested in their kids' lives. They listen to their kids and give them "space" to be independent. They love their kids enough to discipline, rebuke, and correct them when needed.

So far, I've read a balance of books featuring the good and bad parent thingy. Maybe it's because I tend to read bonnet fiction, but the bad parent element in stories has never bothered me much because I know that not all parents are good. Many of the situations depicted in the books are real and happen everyday to some people.

ritathecheetah said...

The bad parents in YA (and in real life too) are the abusive and non-attentive ones. There's a difference between giving your kids freedom and not caring about their lives.

And I think it's sad that in most YA books now parents are "bad" in one way or another. And yes, there are bad parents out there, but I honestly think the good parents outweigh the number of bad parents out there. Just because a teenager doesn't like their parents doesn't mean that the parents are bad parents.

Anonymous said...

I don't know that I can judge whether parents are "good" or "bad". I guess if they're outright criminal - i.e. abuse that makes them obviously parents. Most other parents are just trying to do the best they can.

YA fiction targets young adults and what could impact a young adult more than a "bad" parent? In kids movies, they like to kill off the parent (Snow White, Cinderella, Lion King). But you get a little older and you realize the only worse than a parent who dies is one that leaves or checks out - out of choice. It pulls at the heart strings of a YA.

Farah @ Broken Penguins

Michelle said...

This is such a subjective subject. What I consider "bad" others might not. I'm not fond of absent parents in stories more than anything. I also think some parents are drawn to extremes (harsh or understanding) in order to allow for certain plot points. I find that difficult to work through. But all in all I think it's difficult for an author to write parents in a novel knowing that a certain percentage of readers will find fault.

Lauren said...

Bad parenting: the Shiver series. Parents treat their daughter more like a housemate/adult than a child...and only crack down when they realize there's a boy sleeping in her bed. Little too late, don't you think?

I think the absentee parents come from the growing up aspect of YA. Our teen protagonists are taking risks and becoming independent and learning who they are... and this is often more convenient without a parental unit around to impose curfew.

Now I really want to put a *good* parent-child relationship in the story I'm writing to prove it's possible!

The Compulsive Reader said...

The two books I mentioned, North of Beautiful and Say the Word, have to do with verbal abuse, especially North of Beautiful.

And I agree that just because a teen doesn't like their parents doesn't mean that they aren't good ones...parents do seem to be perceived as awful quite a bit because the story is told from the teen's perspective.

And I guess for me, a quality of a good parent isn't necessarily knowing when to "back off"...as parents, it's your job to be a part of your kids' lives and give them support. It's hard to define the difference between giving a teen too much space, being there for them, and crowding them. I know my parents were (and still are) always around, always offering advice and insight, even if it was unsolicited. They never were overbearing, but I didn't want to hear what they had to say a lot of times. Looking back now, I'm glad they didn't back off and give me space because their continual support helped me become a better person in the long run.

That being said, I'm not a parent and so I am not exactly qualified to be doling out parenting advice, but it is an interesting subject in YA.

Anonymous said...

In the essay the author spoke to the idea that in YA the parents become perifery and tm most teenage points of view their world is the end-all-be-all. Far more interesting than what's happening with the adults in theihe Teen's issues become more compelling. I don't mind this - fror lives.

And while I'm fine with the child's issues being the center of the book. I wish we'd see more 'good' parents. They can make mistakes, all parents do something to their teens...even if it's being too involved. But I think that most readers today would connect with a child whose parents were involved and/or supportive. There's no need for completely idiotic parents. I'm kind of sick of seeing them honestly. Can't we just do a novel where Bella decided to live with her Dad for a bit because he wanted her to? Because she desired to visit him? Because her mother wanted to encourage a better relationship with her father?

Then again...good parenting doesn't do much to set up the intense relationship Bella has with Edward...Had Charlie been a little more aware those sleepovers woulda never happened...Then where would we be?

Maybe the bad parent is more a function of teenage entitlement. The view that they are the center of their worlds and have no room for a helpful parental figure. It wouldn't be just about them anymore. They'd have to think about their family...

Jill Murray said...

A slightly different angle on this issue: If a book is written from a first person perspective and the teen protagonist is annoyed at her parents, then I think it's realistic for her to describe them harshly or unjustly. This doesn't necessarily mean they're bad parents. This is just something I remember many teens doing, from when I was a teen.

I have one book with harsh parents and one book with sympathetic parents. As the author, I know the "harsh" parents are under many stresses the progtagonist doesn't understand. She's way too angry to see their point of view, so they come off as rampantly insensitive. So it goes.

eejjennings said...

I think that the bad parents in YA serve the same sort of literary purpose as absent parents for teens readers---the coming of age trope that we see so often. The idea that the teens are basically in it alone (Harry Potter, Narnia Chronicles, Wrinkle in Time, Secret Garden to name a few) and must come up with their own solutions. The bad parent character might just be a more modern tweek--the parents are physically present, but for all intents and purposes, the kids bascically are on their own and their rotten parents are just one more issue they have to accept in order to become independent adults.