What's Up with all the Bad Parents in YA Fiction?
Almost everyone who consumes YA ravenously knows that, more often than not, teen characters are given awful parents. They're alcoholics or workaholics or neglectful or dead. The question is, why though? Where are the good parents? Hello? Anyone out there?
Easy source of conflict
No matter what genre you write in (but especially, I'd say, for contemporary), most writers can admit that giving their characters crappy parents is simply easier. It provides backstory and conflict that helps explain why a character turned out the way she did. Why she's afraid to be abandoned. Why she has anger issues. Why she's afraid of being in a committed relationship.
If the protagonist has great parents (or even average parents), where is the conflict? What's wrong with her life? What story is worth telling if her life is pretty good?
It's an instant way to get readers to feel bad for the protagonist
No one feels bad if Becky comes home to her two loving parents who give her a pat on the back for the A+ she got on the chemistry test. If we see her parents hitting her, verbally abusing her, or ignoring her, we're instantly on her side. We want her to succeed.
Unlikeable characters are made somewhat redeemable if we know that their home life is hard. It evokes sympathy. If she has a great home life and is a terrible person anyway, then oof. Good luck getting your readers past page three.
It enables the protagonist to make more of her own decisions
If the protagonist has good, active parents that engage with her, then they're probably going to stop her from making stupid decisions, which also eliminates conflict. She can't sneak out of the house to meet her boyfriend without her parents noticing. She can't go out drinking with her friends and show up at two in the morning because she knows no one's waiting up for her.
In short, parents get in the way.
If a teenager is raised to be responsible, respectful, and wise, then all we get to see is her sitting quietly through class, going home, doing homework, and going to bed at a reasonable time. Rinse, repeat. Day in, day out, for three hundred pages.
Sounds riveting, doesn't it?
We live in a culture that values individuality
We want to establish our own identity apart from our parents and forge a path for ourselves. Kids who constantly go to their parents for advice (according to YA fiction) do not have agency. They need to do everything (including make mistakes) on their own. Otherwise, always listening to your parents is--let's admit it--boring.
See, this is where authors can add conflict, though. How much do they still trust their parents' input? Do they have that itch to get out and be their own person? Do their own thing?
Even good kids can do this. The parents lose their grip of influence and the kid starts listening to his friends, the media, the Galactic Empire, or the culture at large. Then where does that lead him?
Authors write about it because it's believable. The divorce rate, as of 2021, is between forty and fifty percent. Conceivably, half of YA writers grew up with divorced parents or are divorced themselves.
I include divorce in the "bad parenting" category because of the emotional, psychological, and social ramifications for kids who grow up in a broken home, no matter how clean the break was. I don't want to make it sound like divorce is never justifiable, to be clear, or that it's never the best decision. It's just always hard on the kids.
I shared in a post here that several of the YA books I was reading featured dead, absent, or divorced parents. It's been that way for over a decade--or at least since I was reading YA as a teen. It was something I'd always noticed, and something that will probably stick around for decades to come.
The Future is Female
When you walk into a book store looking for a YA novel, maybe you'll notice that most of them seem to be written by women. Well, that's because they are. I think a lot of women incorporate the deadbeat parent trope in their work to exude girl power, which is also a popular trend in YA right now. The absent parent is usually the father, so (in my opinion) I think women want to condemn this pattern in men while also prove we can fare without them. That being said, the message is clear: masculinity is toxic and the future is female.
What does this mean for writers?
I am in no way condemning the deadbeat parent trope. I care more about how it's executed and how it supports the themes in the book. However, I also think it can be used as an easy way out. It's the standard. It's been done one too many times---including by me.
It all boils down to conflict. Writers need to think of other organic ways to introduce and sustain conflict.
That's why, for my current work in progress, I'm challenging myself to write good parents who don't get in the way of the characters' personal development. They have their flaws, but they still care about their kids, just like so many real parents do.