I recently ran across this article in the New York Times: “The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit” (by Julie Just). It made me think, and I’m wondering what your reactions might be.
Here’s an excerpt….
Judging from The New York Times children’s best-seller list and librarian-approved selections like the annual “Best Books for Young Adults,” the bad parent is now enjoying something of a heyday. It would be hard to come up with an exact figure from the thousands of Y.A. novels published every year, but what’s striking is that some of the most sharply written and critically praised works reliably feature a mopey, inept, distracted or ready-for-rehab parent, suggesting that this has become a particularly resonant figure….
Sometimes the parents are very, very busy, and sometimes they’ve simply checked out. The husband of the accident-prone mother is never home at night. It’s not that he’s with another woman; he’s working late at the Johns Hopkins bio lab. In Laurie Halse Anderson’s best-selling “Wintergirls,” about a dangerously anorexic high school senior, the mom is a sought-after surgeon too pressed to notice that her malnourished daughter is a bit shorter than she was four years earlier.
Like the clownish adults on the Disney Channel or “Modern Family,” the not-in-charge, curiously diminished parent is just sort of there, part of the scenery. You can even spot the type in three best- selling fantasy series: “Twilight,” “Shiver” and “The Hunger Games.” In “Twilight,” the only reason Bella meets the supernaturally good-looking Edward in the first place is that she has moved to her father’s place in gloomy Forks, Wash.; that way, her mother can follow around after her new husband, a minor-league ballplayer. “I stared at her wild, childlike eyes. How could I leave my loving, erratic hare-brained mother to fend for herself?” (Edward’s own parents are charming, competent and rich, but they are vampires.)
Afflicted by anomie, sitting down to another dismal meal or rushing out the door to a meeting, the hapless parents of Y.A. fiction are slightly ridiculous. They put in an appearance at the stove and behind the wheel of the car, but you can see right through them….
(I’ve noticed this in the books my kids bring home. The actually absent parent, once replaced by crotchety elderly relatives–Aunts Spiker and Sponge, for example, in James and the Giant Peach–are now more likely to be physically present but incompetent. Anyway, Ms. Just continues…)
You have to wonder how the distracted, failing parent became such a ubiquitous image in pop culture. In Neil Gaiman’s novel “Coraline,” from 2002, the lonely title character wanders into danger in a creepy new house because the parents are busy and preoccupied. “Go away,” the father says cheerfully the minute she appears. This theme was made more explicit in the 2009 movie version, in which both parents seem to be transfixed by their computers. “Hey Mom, where does this door go?” Coraline asks, and her mother replies without looking away from the monitor: “I’m really, really busy.” Near-fatal adventures ensue with terrifying “other parents” in the alternate world behind the door — who begin by offering Coraline delicious meals and toys, but actually want to turn her into a kind of soulless rag doll with button eyes — because the real parents are on deadline writing a gardening catalog….
Many contemporary young adult novels seem to reflect genuine confusion over what the job of parent consists of, beyond keeping kids fed and safe. This isn’t surprising, after a decade in which “overparenting” became almost a badge of honor and you could sign a child up for a clay-modeling class only to find that you, too, were expected to stay and make coil pots. The Mommy & Me trend helps explain the baffling numbers from a report, published in 2006, that found working mothers were managing to spend about the same amount of time per week with their children as stay-at-home mothers did 40 years ago. In those days they said “Go play” rather than “Go away,” but the comparison surely says something about the expectations of both groups.
So what, you’re wondering, does this have to do with home schooling? We’re not distracted, failing parents. We’re not pushing our kids away because we’re busy writing gardening catalogs. In fact, we’re spending more time with them. They’re here, in our houses, all day.
Still, the article has made me consider my parenting style a little more closely. Mostly, I wonder if I play with my children enough: hang out with them, play games, sit in the yard and blow dandelions?
We are together so much, working on school-related tasks, that when we’re done with school I generally say, “OK, everybody outside to play!” and they storm off with great enthusiasm to go…do whatever they do out there. (Hit things with sticks, mostly, I think.) And usually I don’t go outside to play with them; I clean up the kitchen or put some laundry in or vacuum dog hair off the furniture. Or catch up on some professional work.
Keeping kids fed and safe is no small matter, but as a home schooling parent I add “and making them literate” to that list. (And training their characters, of course, and all of that good stuff.)
But what about “keeping them entertained”? I think we can all agree that we shouldn’t overparent by filling every minute of the day with a planned activity–but does “go play” equal “go away”? Should I add a little more purposeful mommy-playtime to our days? (And if I do, who will vacuum the dog hair off the furniture?)
What do you think, home educating parents? Do you play with your kids less than you might if they were in school? Or more? And although you probably wouldn’t send your kid through a mysterious door into a creepy land because you’re writing a garden catalog, do you ever look up from your curriculum planning and wonder whether you’re paying enough attention to the children you’re planning for?
I have no well-thought-out philosophy to conclude this post. I’m just contemplating, and wondering if the same thoughts ever occupy your mind. And if you’d like to share them.