The Lack Of Parental Supervision (The Trend of Sneaking Around Sneaking Around)

Just a few moments ago I was writing a review of Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, which I read for the first time early last week. While I enjoyed the story well enough, I found myself going off on a tangent in my review about one point: the utter lack of parental supervision. What began with a sentence grew into three paragraphs, and soon enough it had taken over the review. I had nothing against the book or the author, but the idea of lessened supervision in literature. It's a topic that has been approached before (and in a much more eloquent way, I might add). Authors and bloggers alike have weighed in on the topic either in support of, or against, bad parents.

The Book Lantern weighs in, calling it Disappearing Parent Syndrome:
Disappearing Parent Syndrome, or DPS, is a term I coined while reading Maureen Johnson's 13 Little Blue Envelopes. It is meant to describe a reoccurring theme in YA fiction where the parents vanish from the story. There are many YA novels where this is handled well -- either as a plot point so necessary it makes or breaks the story as in the case of Harry Potter or so plausibly and skillfully done that the loss of the parental presence does not detract from the story in the slightest. However, there are a great many novels where this is an unnecessary or unrealistic plot device used to justify a teenager living like a young twenty-something minus the annoying stuff like paying bills.
While there are some novels that handle having less parental supervision like this beautifully, there are undeniably some whose sole purpose in using this device seems to me to be a means to an end. Personally, I'm inclined to think of the removal of good parental supervision as a way of sneaking around making a character sneak around. Crappy pun, but you get what I'm saying. In most of what I've read lately, it's been used as a way to let a character do what needs to be be done in order for the story to move forward, without wasting time on things like sneaking out the window, asking permission, or (gasp!) actually telling the truth to the parents and relying on trust and communication.

On the opposite side, Sara Ockler, Author of Twenty Boy Summer and Fixing Delilah, says:
The best YA lit — arguably, any literature — is not that which paints the most accurate reflection of reality, but that which resonates most authentically with the intended reader. It’s the whole “perception is reality” thing. Regardless of the reality, lots of teens perceive their parents as inept, mopey, or even downright bad — I know I did.
At first I want to disagree with her, but there is truth to what she says here. Perception is paramount when reading a book, and each person's perception differs with their own experiences. I remember being a teenager and thinking my parents had absolutely no idea what was going on in my life. Looking back, I realize that this is not because they seemed to be absent from my life, but because they were absolutely NOT absent at any point, no matter how much I wished they were (sorry mom and dad; I was young).

And maybe it's for that exact reason that I find the idea of DPS so frustrating. It's something I haven't experienced, and therefore know nothing about. It's new, and something I don't agree with, therefore I tend to hate coming across it (and BOY have I come across it this year). But the truth is that this is a real problem. Are there parents in real life who seem to disappear from their children's lives? Yes. I met a lot of them while growing up. And while they seemed like the cool parents back then, I am grateful now that my parents were nothing like them. But it's all about perception. Mine has changed since I was seventeen, and sometimes I forget that.

Maggie Stiefvater herself, after listing the reasons she chose to write about bad parents, says:
In short, my name is Maggie Stiefvater, and I write about bad parents. And bad kids. And bad animals. And bad decisions.

And I'm not sorry.
I can't deny that there is a place for bad parents in literature, and I'm glad that she stands up for herself on this point.

But I can't deny that there is a place for good parents, either.

Could a dangerous adventure or sweeping romance have happened in my teenage years? Probably not, with how vigilant my parents were...at least if it did, it would have taken a lot more strategy on my part. It would take more strategy on the part of any character in a book, too.

And yet I can't help but be on the lookout for books with vigilant parents. They don't have to be super nice or even mean parents. Supervision doesn't equal nice and sweet, and it doesn't equal rude, either. They can be the most strict parents alive, or pay just enough attention to know when something is wrong. But I would love to read about them, because it's something I'm familiar with. Something I have dearly missed in the books I've read this year.

I miss mom and dad.

So are you for, or against, DPS? I want to hear your thoughts!

And if you know of a good book with strong parental figures, let me know!


  1. OMG what great thoughts.

    I love the points you bring up.

    My mother gave me lots of freedom but she was definitely never absent.

    I find I don't mind DPS but I appreciate kids with good relationships with their parents more.

    I like that Maggie acknowledges she writes about character flaws.

    Great thought provoking post.

  2. As you know, I've been writing a series of posts on the Disney Princesses. Way too many of them have at least one absent parent - normally a mother. But the truth of the matter is that a lot of stories with two engaging, interesting parents who care about their children would really probably never let their children go off an have an unsupervised adventure that involved any kind of risk - that's why I didn't move to England until I was an adult. That's why real-life teens who are 'interesting' (those who go to parties, smoke, drink, have sex etc) normally hate their parents, don't get on with them or at least see them as incidental. The teens who behave and never have any adventures have a good relationship with their children, where they would tell the truth about anything weird going on. Speaking from personal experience.

    I have written a series of short stories about a teenage demon hunter, and her parents are both present in her life because they're a family of demon hunters and they work together. If the hunting was the teen's secret, I would probably find it a lot easier to remove the parents altogether. I think if the parents aren't a part of the adventure that the teen is having, it's simply easier for the writer to eliminate them.

    Although growing up, I read a series called Animorphs, and the kids there who had parents were forever juggling and struggling with their adventures.

  3. I find it annoying. I understand it, and I do think that it reflects a certain amount of reality, but it is still annoying to me. Shiver (and its sequels), in particular, stands out as a frustrating example of this, though it is certainly not the only one.

    There are times when I feel like it "makes sense"- Mortal Instruments as an example. The parents aren't really "absent", mom is knocked out, Luke (the father figure) is trying to keep his distance for safety reasons, etc.

    There are times that I think it's handled "realistically"- Twilight being an example of this. Single parent household, dad simply can't be there all the time, but when Bella steps out of line, dad gets angry, grounds her, etc.

    Then there are books like Shiver, where I feel like the author/agent/publisher/editor said "this needs to be a YA book, but you've written it like an adult book, make your characters younger", so instead of re-writing a bunch, they make the character a teen, say that the parents don't pay any attention and leave the rest of the story as it was.

    That's my two cents.

  4. That's something I feel like I see all the time in books, too. A lot of times it seems like authors want to give their characters all the freedom they would have if they were in college, but want to keep them high school age. I didn't have the best parents, and I only lived with my mom, but I don't think I would have gotten away with a fraction of the stuff that happens in YA books. :)
    I don't know if authors expect us think all the situations are realistic, or maybe just want readers to suspend their disbelief. Either way, I appreciate the books where there are parents who are involved.

  5. The lack of parents in many YA books tends to bug me, too. I lived a very sheltered existence as a teenager, and on some levels I still resent my parents for that even though I'll be 29 this year. On the flip side, though, I know that it kept me safe from many situations.

  6. This is a really great post! The DPS really bothered me in 13 Little Blue Envelopes because such a huge deal was made at the start about how they WERE vigilant parents, and then they just aren't anymore!

    The truth is that it is easier to write teens who have uninvolved parents. I'm currently working on a YA book and getting things (i.e. magic) to happen realistically while still having semi-involved parents is not super easy. My main character is in a single parent household (with involved parent), but another main character has two relatively involved parents and needs to "disappear" for a few days. It's hard to work around that, while still communicating that his parents are decent and caring people, but I think worth it.

    It is also worth it to make your teen characters employ a little bit of that strategy you're talking about: We don't want his parents to worry and/or make a missing person's report, therefore we must come up with a plan.

    The problem with parents is that are just too practical - when faced with magic, fae, recently awoken 12th century princesses, they would likely just call the police or Child Protective Services . . . and that wouldn't make for much of a book.

  7. You got me thinking. While not having parents around in a book is a problem, also having the parents around but with they being bad parents is also an issue.

    Going into realistic YA, since that's what I know, mostly the parents are:
    1. divorced
    2. one parent is dead or in some cases, both.
    3. one parent is out of the picture (left the kid and never returned)
    4. still married (but the author doesn't go into that detail and they don't appear much in the book)

    I would love to see the parents more involved in books. They don't have to be together, but I just want them to CARE about what their child is up to and how she/he is doing. Get them more involved in their life.

    I'm going through my Goodreads and checking out what books have the parents actually present and involved in the story.

    This is the best I could come up with:

    1. Sixteenth Summer by Michelle Dalton

    2. Where She Went by Gayle Forman: (The characters are both adults in this book but he goes into flashbacks and mentions talks with his mom. I think with his dad too, but I can't remember. Anyone wants to clear this up?

    Mia's parents were also very cool, but you know...yeah.

    3.Sloopy Firsts by Megan McCafferty: Even though sometimes they're clueless as to HOW she's feeling, they appear a lot in the book. And they look like, you know, real parents.

    I don't know if this answers what you wanted but it's a great discussion topic.

    - Mary [Anxirium]

  8. Just remembered! Kiara's parents (Carlos' love interest in Rules of Attraction by Simone Elkeles), her parents are there; sometimes clueless but her dad lays down some rules to Carlos and they're supportive.

  9. Fab-tastic post.

    I think DPS is one of the reasons I kind of skipped over the YA genre at first. I couldn't connect. I find myself rolling my eyes and feeling like something would never happen. Instead of it being a means to an end, for me it was just a distraction.

    While at times it is necessary and perhaps helpful. I might be more interested in the YA author that makes it work with parents who are present.

    I had to get through my young-adult life with parents that were always there, setting rules, curfews, and saying no. Why shouldn't my favorite characters. But then again, I'm not dating a vampire, turning into a vampire, or anything exciting. So maybe that is the real problem :)

  10. You pose some interesting questions. I never really thought about this in regards to literature, but it is something that I notice when watching tv. Great post!


  11. I also have noticed the lack of parents in most YA fiction. I recently read a great book Impossible by Nancy Werlin, where the parents where not only there but also helped the MC solve her problem. I thought it was a wonderful read and it was a refreshing change. One that I would like to see more often.

  12. @Juju: Thanks for stopping by! I agree with you; I definitely appreciate characters who have good relationships with their parents.

    @Lissa: I agree with you as well, and that's were I'm so torn. Having involved parents would mean that a lot less things could happen, but I can't help but wish for it still. I like what you said about your story, though. Kudos for having involved parents! :) And I don't remember much about the Animorphs, except that I loved reading about them I'll have to check one out form the library and read it again.

    @Gina: Haha, I love your description of Shiver, at the end. Mortal Instruments is a very good example of a time when it works for the story, and makes sense. I'm glad you brought it up. And I think it works for Twilight because Bella's parents tried to be a part of her life at some point, whether it was calling her constantly, or actually grounding her when she needed it. It didn't work for me in Shiver because Grace's parents didn't even pretend to care, and didn't try to set any limits at all...meaning she could do whatever she wanted at any hour of the day; skip school, travel anywhere, etc. No consequences. *sigh*

    @Kathy: EXACTLY! Very nicely put. Sometimes it does seem like they're just college kids who happen to have a parent drop into their life to say "hello" every once in a while.

    @Rachel: Agreed. I resented my parents for a long time...until I became a parent myself, and realized all the trouble they had saved me from!

    @Jessica: I had completely forgotten that about 13 Little Blue Envelopes! I remember now, how her parents had initially made a huge deal about her going and wanting her to be safe...and then they just disappeared from the story. Your point at the end is very true, though. A lot of parents just wouldn't understand/wouldn't want to understand when it comes to the fantastical. It's why I am so grateful when an author can actually pull it off! (Kudos for your story!) :)

    @mfay2: That's totally what I wanted! I want to read more books that show good relationships with parents, or at least parents who care--like you said. Thanks for the suggestions! I'm adding them to the top of my list. :)

    @Alexis: Love that paragraph at the end! I agree so much! I had to get through life with strict parents, why shouldn't other characters as well? I know it would take a lot of strategy to pull it off, but I would be that much more impressed.

    @Jehara: YES! I see it on TV all the time...probably even more than I see it in books, which is really sad.

    @Anonymous: Great recommendation! I read that book last year, and loved how her parents got involved and helped her complete the tasks. It was so sweet!


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