Why Are My Parents Useless?

One of the great debates–or maybe a question–that pervades the Young Adult writing and reading communities is:

Why are the parents so useless?

An observation (or complaint, depending upon how you look at it) is that parents in Young Adult books are rarely seen as three dimensional characters. Often, they are just scenery, neither adding anything to the story or impeding its progress. Sometimes, when the parents are involved in the story, they are never fleshed out.

An alcoholic father/mother. A caring mother/father that does nothing more than support the child. Absent. Bereft. Oblivious. Strict. Free-spirited.

We rarely see the parents in Young Adult novels as fully realized characters.

I’ve thought about this observation/debate/complaint for a few years now. It does seem like writers want to make their main characters/protagonists and antagonists fully-realized human beings, and sometimes even side characters get the full treatment. Parents are often forgotten in the course of storytelling.

But why is that? Do writers feel that the parents are useless in telling the story? Do they feel that once a person has children they are no longer a human being with their own wants, needs, and skills?

No. Not really. While some writers do forget about the parents because they are not integral to the overall forward movement of the story, that is often not the case.

The real answer is POV, or point of view.

I’m going to assume everyone reading this is over the age of eighteen, so pardon me if that ends up not being the case.

Let’s all think back to when we were children, preteens, and teenagers. What did we think of our parents? Did we know their favorite book? Movie? Where they picked up the habit of pushing their hair behind their ear? Why they preferred one flavor of jam over the other? Were we always able to decipher every look they gave us? Did we know how to interpret every look one parent gave the other? Did we know that sometimes they get lonely, even when surrounded by the rest of the family? Did they have dreams they had given up on? A lost love they would have rather been with instead of their family? Did we know the sacrifices they made to give us life and keep us alive?

No. We were kids. We saw our parent(s) through the eyes of a child with minimal life experience. Our parent(s) were caricatures to us. Sometimes a god. Sometimes a fool. Sometimes something in between–if only for the briefest moments when our brains were actually working.

When a writer tells a story from a first-person point of view, through the eyes of a teenager (or young adult, I should say), they are letting you view the world as the young adult sees it. That includes their parents.

Teens often see their parent(s) as being on one end of a spectrum or another. Maybe their parents drank too many beers on a Friday night and said something mean. They’re an alcoholic, obviously. Maybe the parent came into their bedroom and sat down on the bed and asked about their day. They’re obviously overbearing.

Jeez! My mom won’t stop smothering me!” – a teenager whose mom asked him how his day was, probably.

The reader is supposed to view the world in the way the main character, or young adult does. In a young adult world, a parent is rarely worth trying to understand as a complete human being–and even if a young adult wanted to understand them, would they be able? Does a young adult have the emotional and mental capability to understand someone who has twenty-plus more years of life experience and is trying to teach them to be a fully-realized human?

That’s why our bad experiences as kids inform who we are as adults so deeply. Things are black and white. They are extreme. The one time your mom called you stupid, it stung. it burrowed its way into your psyche. You weren’t developed enough to think: “Hm. Mom is having a stressful day and she doesn’t mean this. I bet the meeting at work went poorly and later we can discuss what is upsetting her in a rational way.

And that’s why Young Adult books in first-person point of view often have such odd adults for parents. There’s a spectrum for parents–but they can only reside at one end or the other, because that’s how young adults view their parents.

In fact, you can apply this thought to any book, regardless of genre, if it is written in a first-person POV. We only get to observe and experience the world as it is viewed by the main character. If a character falls flat, maybe that’s how the main character views them? It doesn’t mean you have to like it, but at least now you have a theory as to why that would be.

Admittedly, if a Young Adult book is written in a third-person point of view with a more omniscient narrator, and any character falls flat, that’s poor or lazy writing. Or maybe that’s what the writer intended. It’s hard to speculate as to why this would happen unless you read the book for yourself and make a decision for yourself.

Regardless, consider point of view when a character doesn’t feel right to you. Maybe it will give you some insight.

Tremendous Love & Thanks,