In Defence of Bad Parents in Books

No I don’t literally mean I’m defending bad parents in books (nothing makes me *rage* more than bad parents irl, so rest assured this is not a pro-abusive parents post, obviously). HOWEVER, more and more, I’m seeing people complain that there are not enough decent parent figures in books. And this is a fair criticism, because you know, not every parent has to be a totally useless douchbag. Yet there is something that can be said for lousy parents in books and there are plenty of reasons why this is a useful trope. So I’m gonna break it down today and talk about why sometimes it’s good to have bad parents in books:

stormbreakerIt can be plot expedient– I heard an author saying when I was younger that they always got the parents out of the way at the beginning so that children could have adventures- which I was a-okay with, cos I’m in favour of adventures. So yes, it may be ridiculous that somehow Alex Rider has managed to lose 3 parent figures, but at least that meant he was free to save the world (yes, said author was Anthony Horowitz).

Harry_Potter_and_the_Philosopher's_Stone_Book_CoverThey provide a good foil for the hero– Let’s face it, we all love to hate villains. And what is more usefully positioned as a villain than a parent? They literally have access to where the hero sleeps, eats and can even control where they go to school. Think of all the added tension this provides! I mean, it was hard enough for Harry that he had to save the world from Voldemort, but every book had to deal with the Dursleys as well… Yikes- I’d pick Voldy any day 😉……………………………

City_of_Bones (1)It’s unsettling– of course “home” or “family” is *supposed* to be the safest thing in the world, yet revealing that the villain is none other than your father of all people can make the hero question everything. Are they still a good person? Were any of their positive memories real? Think of the trauma it created in Mortal Instruments when we find out that Valentine might have fathered not one, but two of our heroes (excusing the silly love triangle it created of course)

game of thrones book“Oh sympathy where have you gone…”– (three cheers if you know that song 😉 ) okay seriously though, where would be without the amount of sympathy that crappy parents instantly creates for the main character. Who can pretend like their sympathy for Samwell Tarley didn’t surge when we realised how bad his home life was in Game of Thrones. Realistically speaking, it’s easier for us as readers to sympathise with characters who have real problems, as opposed to the whiny self-obsessed heroine whose main concern is chipping a nail or who will take them to prom.

tuliptouchIt’s a fact of life– sure we’d like to believe every childhood is sunshine and kittens and rainbows, yet sadly too many children grow up in homes where abuse is the norm. Rather than normalising or encouraging these behaviours, having bad parents in books actually can provide comfort for children going through traumatic childhoods. It creates a sense that “you are not alone”. If we pretend like this is not a thing, we actually *do* risk normalising these behaviours, and ignoring the problem. As hard as sad as it is to acknowledge, books like Tulip Touch are true to some people’s experiences. So let’s not write children from abusive homes out of books, cos they do exist.

matildaIt can teach us all to be more empathetic– let’s face it, I will always champion books which can make us more empathetic to other people’s experiences. So even if a child has no point of reference for what it might be like to grow up in a negative home environment, books can be the gateway to understand different and difficult life experiences. Whether this is in realistic books, or stories like Matilda, we can identify the character traits and come to understand reality just that little bit more.

So do you agree or disagree? Do you think bad parents have a place in books? Let me know in the comments!

67 thoughts on “In Defence of Bad Parents in Books

  1. I agree. I think I primarily see it as a plot thing, particularly in middle grade, because what responsible adult is seriously going to let an 11-year-old set off alone on an adventure to save the world? Sometimes the parents just need to disappear with this to happen. But I agree that absent/unobservant/negligent parents are unfortunately a fact of life in the real world for some people, so this isn’t necessarily unrealistic in a book.

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    1. Yes I completely agree!! I mean, as much as I want there to be good parents, the second they let their children jump into danger and go gallivanting off on a secret mission… they instantly become bad parents- so it’s sort of a catch 22. And yes, there’s the added aspect to this of the fact that unfortunately this can be realistic for some people.

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  2. Definitely agree with your train of thought! In my book that I’m currently writing (first novel) the main heroess has a nice, kind father who still makes mistakes because he’s human, and her mother wasn’t there for her childhood but that was through no fault of her own, and tries raising her when she finally gets back to her child. The main character still gets adventures, but also gets approving if slightly worried parents. I don’t see why you can’t have both in a story. Not all parents are awful/abusive/not there/dead/etc. I really really wish that there were more good parents in fantasy/adventure type stories, it would make for much more interesting reading-like the parents figure out their kid saved the world. Their both torn and proud, and ground him/her for going out past bedtime. I would read that.

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  3. While I do complain about the bad parents and hate that they have become such cliched tropes, but I recognize their purpose. One can hardly be a flawed hero and go saving the world when parents are good and loving and constantly worrying about your well being. Also, you are right, it can be relatable to a good amount of people, but it’s also gotten to the point in YA and Middle-Grade fiction that parents are kind of a joke. I think that while they do have their place in fiction, they need to be well written to be done right and many times they are not.

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    1. Yeah I totally get why people complain (I do it too) but at the same time I gotta admit there’s a reason why this happens in books. Yeah exactly- I feel like the second the parent has to step back and let the child jump into harm’s way… well they wouldn’t necessarily be the best parent in that situation. That is true- I think that books can mix this up a bit. And of course, it should be done well, or not at all.

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  4. I wouldn’t have such a thing against bad parents in books if they just didn’t seem to be the only kind. I just can’t stand the unrelenting assault on parents as a whole. They’re either evil or incompetent. That might drive a plot, but it sends the completely wrong message to young brains if that is ALL they read.

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    1. Totally fair enough- I was actually just talking to someone else about this and they were talking about this in contemporary books, where I think it makes sense for the balance of good parenting to outweigh the bad (whereas I can be more forgiving of bad parents in fantasy) I do totally get what people mean about there being a need for more positive parent figures in books. Maybe the solution is for more people to write what they know- then only like 20% of bookish parents would be lousy (going on stats for UK) Dunno, just thinking out loud 😉

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  5. I think some of the books want to express real lives, and reality is there are bad parents. No one is perfect. But also there are good parents and those two can be the same parents 😉 From time to time, from all the circumstances, it can change a person

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  6. I agree. I think bad parents add a huge dimension to any story – something every kid can usually identify with, one way or another. It’s a new trend as far as I can tell – a few generations back parents were usually just part of the background in kids’ stories, either absent or benevolent, or (really) there for character-development purposes in the protagonist – as in L’Engle’s ‘A Wrinkle In Time’ (best kids book ever written, that). Of the recent batch I figure Rowling’s Dursleys were basically the Cinderella ‘step-mother’ (and nothing wrong with that – it’s a human reality), but jumping across to Cassandra Clare, I have to say Valentine is one of the better constructed evil characters around in that genre – and very finely played in the TV series.

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    1. Yes exactly! That’s very true and that’s an excellent point about this being more of a recent development, especially because I remember reading some Victorian tales where it seemed to be the common trope that the children would disappear into another world and the parents wouldn’t notice they’re gone (can’t for the life of me recall any examples, I just read a selection on a course in uni) I do need to read Wrinkle in Time (embarrassing, I know) but I get what you mean. That’s very true. I have to agree with you one hundred percent- I was pretty blown away with how good Valentine was as a character and villain- he had the perfect balance of villainy and yet was understandable. Agree with you about his portrayal in the TV show too (incidentally the shoddy interpretation in the film version is why I feel that failed so drastically)

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  7. I agree. Except that it seems as though all YA books are doing it now. When I read The Hate U Give, it was the first time that there was some hands on parents in a YA book. For me that is since I don’t read a ton of YA. The only others I can think of are the Weasley’s, so I think there needs to be a mixture out there.

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    1. That’s very true. I think a lot of what I said (aka with the plot) can be applied more to fantasy, so I do appreciate more in contemporary when the balance is on having the parents be the more decent sort. Plus, it’s always decent to have a balance. I do want to read The Hate U Give (once the excitement dies down, hype scares me) especially because the parents sound ace! And I *love* the Weasleys!! Completely agree with you!

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  8. I don’t know. I do understand why it’s done and yep we should acknowledge that not every home is perfect but it seems like it’s pretty much every book. It’s too easy to just blame or use the parents. I find it much more interesting if the author manages to achieve the same result without that trope. You shouldn’t have to have bad parents to go on an adventure

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    1. That’s fair enough- and I think a lot of people were arguing here that there should be a balance. Personally, I’m happy to see the majority of parents in books not be douchbags (or dead) but I did feel, since it’s a hot topic, like coming defending the purpose of bad parents in books. hehe true

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  9. Hello! I love this post and I agree with all of your points! I haven’t thought of the first point of “getting the parents out of the way” but it makes so much sense! If there are parents to always watch over the child’s shoulders and make them feel safe, then that doesn’t really make room for adventures, does it? And yes unfortunately sometimes it is the fact of life that some children and teens have sucky parents.
    Great post!!! 🙂

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  10. These are so on point! It’s more to do with the plot. I do wish there were more parent figures in YA, I mean, if the parents are good they almost always end up dead. Is there a book where a parent child duo saves the world? There should!

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    1. 100% agree. From a writing stand point, I’m always fascinated by the effects of bad parenting. I like to know why the characters in my novels behave the way they do and a lot of times it’s due to their parents’ child-rearing style. Plain old evil parents are one-dimensional to me. Families are saddled with plenty of inter-generational baggage to explore and often times a hero is a hero because he’s liberated himself from the past in some way.

      Having said all that, I equally enjoy reading and writing about good parents–that can be a very touching and comforting experience if done right.

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      1. Thank you! So glad you agree. I completely get that- and personally I’d *never* want flat, one-dimensional characters of any sort. To me the most important thing is that literature is not sanitised and the bad stuff isn’t written out. Although I do of course agree, I really appreciate good parents when they turn up and would never say no to them 😉

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  11. Oh this is such a great post! I have to agree with you here – if NEVER having any parents in books is a bit unrealistic, it also is unrealistic when they are here all the time. There are so many different scenarios in life, and yes, sometimes it does help with the plot that the parents aren’t here or reveal themselves to be the actual villains of the story! 🙂
    Great post! 🙂

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  12. Bad parents do have a place in books. They are a bitter reality. I think many (sometimes even me) are outraged at the depiction of parents because of two reasons. One being that the writer is not very good at her skills and simply says the parents are bad without building up why or how they are bad. And two, because bad parents feature in a lot of books while good parents are hardly to be found. But I agree that bad parents make us more empathetic to the main character

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    1. Thank you so much! I’m so glad you agree. Yes that’s very true- I definitely get what you mean- sometimes they just don’t add up as characters, and no matter what type of villain someone is supposed to be, they have to be believable. And I agree with two as well- I can see that for sure. I also think there’s a problem with parents that are *supposed* to be seen as good, but are actually pretty useless. Thank you!

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  13. Late.. always late, but it doesn;t change the fact that this is a brilliant post on a subject I have often reflected on. “Parenting” decisions on the author’s part can really affect the plot. Sometimes I will ask why the absenteeism or poor choices, but then I try to envision it differently and realize it would greatly alter the story. Although the absent parent seems to be the most played out trope, but then again.. those kids most be free to explore 😉 Loved this!

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  14. I definitely think bad parents have a place in books – for all the reasons you mentioned. I think I only actively don’t like them when they’re done lazily, perhaps because it counteracts the last two things you mentioned – representing real traumatic childhoods and creating empathy. If the author just throws in a two-dimensional, unrealistic villain of a parent and doesn’t show the impact this has on the child or their emotions, or does so in a shallow way, it can kind of trivialise it and just make it feel like a plot device (depending on the genre and style of course). So I guess it’s like most things – if it’s done well, it’s good!

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    1. Yes for sure- that makes a lot of sense- I don’t think that authors should just throw in lousy characters to substitute for plot. The trouble is, I do see people saying about very realistic types of parents or situations “oh that would never happen in real life”- and even going on some things I’ve learnt from jobs I’ve had at charities, it most certainly does. I think that a lot of the time people might think it’s insensitive, but it’s just plain realistic- cos unfortunately, sometimes the things that happen are hard to believe. So there is the issue of pinning down what is realistic. For me personally the thing that really gets my goat is when a parent is supposed to be considered good, but is actually completely lousy. But of course- I want three dimensional characters all the way 😉 and yeah if the mc is just not gonna be affected it’ll irritate me too.

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      1. Yeah I guess it’s impossible to draw a line and say what’s ‘realistic’ and what isn’t – things that really happen can seem unrealistic in fiction! I know I couldn’t define it if asked, but I just get a gut feeling if it’s lazily done (maybe it’s actually just bad writing or clichés that irritate me 🙂 ). I think it has mostly to do with the reactions of the mc, how they are presented and how real they feel (e.g. if it feels like a character just occasionally brings up their sad childhood in a clichéd, shallow, self-conscious way to try and make you feel sorry for them, or make them seem like they have “depth”, it irritates me). But yeah, parents who are presented as good but aren’t are way more annoying!

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  15. Ooooh this is such an interesting post! 😄 I think one of the most appealing aspects of reading stories where the main character (especially in middle-grade books) goes off on adventures is that they aren’t held back by any parents — they’re independent, and and whether they’re leaving good or bad parent figures, the adventures they go on without the guidance of any parents are part of the appeal 😊 Sometimes bad parents are present in a book to make the moment when the main character gets away from those bad parents even more grand and adventurous. Or, the presence bad parents could be an opportunity for the affected character in the book to learn more about the realities of the world around them/find a way to reconcile with their parents.

    I enjoyed reading your post! 😄👍

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  16. Such a great post Orangutan! ❤ I would like to see teenagers especially interacting with parents in a more normal way… normalizing normality is okay too… thought I TOTALLY AGREE that sometimes its super fun to ditch the parents especially if they are a voice of reason or an overbearing protector. I really loved your point too though that it certainly develops sympathy in our young characters… As with ALL tropes they should be used in such a way that BEST suits the story and characters, not to portray one thing or another!

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    1. Aww thank you! ❤ Yeah I definitely get that and agree! Totally true- I think that's a very fair point. I do get why people would like to see more positive parent roles in books, but I feel like there are reasons for this trope to turn up!

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  17. Got to admit that I’ve been seeing a lot of people complain about the lack of great parents in books nowadays too. And I can also understand why it seems that there’s an abundance of bad ones. It’s as if authors saw kids of their era as readers who are trying to escape their reality where the odds of a bad parent might be higher. Honestly, who knows. But with your post, we can definitely see a purpose to them and how much we can learn from the mistakes rather than overlooking all the good things a parent can do because “it’s normal”. Maybe bad parents is far more shocking and makes the reader reflect on it more? Honestly, I’m just shooting a bunch of reasons hahah What I really wanted to say is.. Fantastic post!! 😀

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    1. Yeah I do really get that- and funnily enough, although every time I see those posts I agree, it was the thing that inspired me to make this post. Especially cos I can really see why this trope exists. I think that’s a great point about escapism. And yeah, I do think it is more shocking, so perhaps authors include it purely for the drama. haha well I enjoyed reading your comment- made me think- so thank you! And thanks!! 😀

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  18. OH SYMPATHY WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, I’M GETTING OLD AND I NEED SOMETHING TO RELY ON—sorry but I love that song so much *three cheers*

    Anyway, I really loved this discussion and I couldn’t have said it better myself! I always find that absent or abusive parents make for a great backstory whenever I’m writing my own stories and it gives the characters and their actions more depth! Fantastic discussion ❤️

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