If you’re a long time reader of YA, you know the gripe: readers constantly complaining that the parents are never involved, too conveniently absent, or just nonexistent, period. However, I think there’s been a recent shift in the role of parents (at least in contemporary YA) where authors may be overcompensating by making parents who are TOO overbearing. A balance is nice and definitely makes for good family dynamics, but I find that this “helicopter parenting” in books, while sometimes part of the plot, tends to overwhelm the book as much as a lack of parental authority can.
Some recent contemporaries I’ve picked up have featured such overbearing parents, and it really got me thinking about family dynamics and the roles of parents, and in what situations DO I enjoy reading about parent-child interactions.
Gossip Girl by Cecily Von Ziegesar: The parents aren’t just absentee, they’ve often enablers, emotionally and financially, to the shenanigans and self destructive behavior of their offspring.
Wolves of Mercy Falls Trilogy by Maggie Stiefvater: While they try to overcompensate later on, Grace’s parents are laughably absent-minded, and her personality as the “adult” of the family borders on absurd. The fact that they all of the sudden try to enforce their parental authority after things happen if even more irritating and excruciating to read because of it.
Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen: Sydney’s mother is the epitomen of controlling. While she has reason to worry due to her firstborn’s out of control antics, it becomes a classic case of her exerting her authority on her younger, well behaved child just because she can. This sort of “preemptive parenting” is no doubt a real thing, but it started to overtake the plot of the novel at times, and the amount of control Sydney allows her mother to give her become tedious and frustrating to read.
Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway: Emmy suffers from two overprotective parents, who veered into paranoia when the boy next door was kidnapped. Their reasoning seemed a little flimsy (he was kidnapped by a parent as a result of a domestic dispute, it wasn’t a random occurrence) and it seemed over the top that Emmy is seventeen and her parents still dictate her bedtime every night. Emmy, however, showed more agency than other protagonists in similar situations and did what most teenagers are apt to do: carry on her illicit activities (surfing) in secret while struggling to find a way to bring her parents into her life.
A Good Balance?
Angelfall by Susan Ee: Though set in post-apocolypctic Northern California and dealing with supernatural beings, Ee managed to portray a well-balanced mother-daughter relationship, if an unorthodox one. Penryn’s mother is a schizophrenic, running unchecked after the apocalypse, without access to medications, doctors, etc. She’s violent and resourceful, a dangerous enemy and surprisingly awesome ally. She has a history of allowing her mental illness to dictate her actions toward her children, sometimes with horrific consequences. Yet she thrives in the chaos of dystopia, and lets Penryn do her heroine thing while swooping in when and where she can when her daughters need her. She doesn’t shelter them from the gore and horror of survival, and perhaps pushes them to their emotional limits, but she keeps them alive, and she allows them to fight and defend themselves rather than stunting their survival with coddling or indifference.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: Cath and Wren deal with both ends of the parenting spectrum in the novel. Their dad is dependable, supportive, and present-enough in phone calls, emergencies, and holidays as can be expected once kids go off to college. Their mother, however, left them to start a new family, a new life, and though starts to become a semi-presence in their lives again, ultimately fails being their emotionally for them. This polarized approach to parenting between divorced parents is great because it depicts the hard truth that relationships with parents aren’t homogenous, and a child’s relationship with each parent as an individual can vary wildly. Too often parents are lumped together as a single unit in YA, not seen for the extremely influential individuals that they are.
Of course, there are always exceptions to these situations. Sometimes absentee parents are part of the growth and character development in books, such as Making Pretty by Corey Ann Haydu, where Montana’s father’s constant dating and mother’s abandonment set the foundations for her teenage self-exploration. Mia from The Princess Diaries grew up extremely close with her mother as one of her best and only friends, and grew to have great morals and principles because of it. All families truly are different, and so all YA families should reasonably be as well. However, the stereotype of the absent YA parent seems like it may be countered too aggressively with helicopter parents who cannot disentangle their lives from their children’s, and in some ways it’s equally frustrating to read because it can stunt character growth or overtake the larger plot of the novel.
I’m not here to complain (I grew up with very overprotective parents myself) or to celebrate the convenient absence of parents for the sake of plot. Rather I would love to see more varied parental dynamics within families, with the character developing more adult relationships with each parent as an individual (rather than them being a fused-together unit where too often Mom calls the shots and Dad just nods along compliantly-which opens a whole different discussion about gender roles…). In the YA age group characters can range from pre-teens to early twenties, and parent-child relationships change a lot during this time period, so variety in such relationships among different age groups would be a great thing to see as well. Finally, it’s fascinating to examine how authors are choosing to write parents across different genres, and how such genres influence (or perhaps don’t change at all) parent-child dynamics. No matter the age group, setting, or level of involvement, parents play a crucial dynamic in YA literature, whether by their presence or absence.
Has this current phenomena with more “helicopter parents” been noticed by anyone else? Do you like it because it makes up for the YA stereotype of conveniently absent parenting, or is it a sub-plot you don’t enjoy reading? What are good books where you found either a good balance between parent-child relationships or a lot of variety in such relationships? Do parents even matter to you when you read YA, or do you prefer when characters are conveniently orphans? (We’ve all been there). Do you have different expectations for family relationships and dynamics depending on what genre/sub-genre you read? Let me know in the comments!