Why Kill Off the Parents? Or, The Role of Grownups in Children’s Stories

Bambi

Even parents who are fans of Disney films are often bothered by one aspect of them, namely: “Why do they always have to kill off the parents?”  We spend our days providing safety and a sense of security for our children, but as soon as we pop a kiddie movie into the player BAM! Our wee ones are faced with terror, violence, death and somebody becoming an orphan, all usually within the first fifteen minutes.

Princesses have dead mothers and fathers who remarry foolishly before dying themselves. Or in another variation, Ariel, Jasmine and Belle have dead mothers and fathers who stick around but aren’t any help at all. Bambi’s mother is shot by a hunter, Simba’s father is killed by his own brother, and Nemo’s mother is gobbled up by a barracuda.

I’ve often heard moms and dads grumble about this. Is it due to some dark quirk of Walt’s original vision that his studio is still killing off parents right, left and centre? Normally I love to criticize the Disney corp., but sadly, not today. The absence of one or both parents is one of the most basic conventions of children’s literature from its earliest days onward. For many, a story for children must primarily be about children, and children are best viewed when they are on their own, free from adult intervention.

“Many fairy-tale plots begin with children being cast out… [these tales] can be experienced as either the child wishing to be rid of the parent, or as his belief that the parent wants to be rid of him.” ¹

Huckleberry Finn

“… the freedom implied by their absence is as delicious in a child’s fantasy as the terror of their absence in real life is authentic.” ² 

In short, once the parents are out of the picture, you have…

“… the fulfillment of a dream that is common to children everywhere: the freedom to roam where they will, to eat what they will, and to sleep where they will, to enjoy perfect, unchecked freedom, with surprise and adventure around the bend in the road.” ³

So, for a really satisfying children’s story you need to isolate the children. Okay, now how does one get rid of the parents?

1. LEAVE THEM BEHIND

Peter Pan

Children can become separated from their parents or guardians, either by accident (The Wizard of Oz) or by design: running away (Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn), wandering off (Alice in Wonderland), flying off (Peter Pan), sailing off (Treasure Island), or simply by entering a large item of furniture (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

2. HAVE THEM TAKEN AWAY

Dumbo storyboard

If you cannot get away from the grownups,  you can always have them taken away from you. The best way to achieve this? Two words: Unjust imprisonment. From The Railway Children to Dumbo‘s mother, this is a useful gambit as it also gives the children something to do – spring their parent.

3. KILL THEM OFF

This is by far the crudest way to remove parents, but it’s uncommonly decisive and effective. A parent or two can be dispatched very quickly so the real story can hit the ground running. Eliminating them in this way also provides a useful starting point for the orphan, in that he/she has our sympathy right from the get-go. And having the reader root for the hero, well that’s half the battle right there.

Heidi

That is why Disney chooses to go this route most of the time, and why tales for children are so full to overflowing with orphans. How better to illustrate the resilience and inner strength of children than to have a pathetic youngster go through endless perils and predicaments all on their own?

Fairy tales started it all, and Charles Dickens led the orphan charge into the modern age. After Oliver Twist came The Jungle Book, Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna, The Boxcar Children, Little Orphan Annie, A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, James and the Giant Peach… etc etc all the way up to Harry Potter and the Lemony Snicket series, which is a full-blown parody of the entire orphan genre.

Lemony Snicket - A Series of Unfortunate Events

4. MAKE THEM BAD

If you simply cannot get rid of them, if you can’t toss them overboard (Pippi Longstocking) and if they just won’t go away of their own accord, one must make the parents neglectful. That is to say, they should be so distant as to be entirely out of the picture. Is this less upsetting for the reader than dead parents? Not necessarily – parents who don’t or won’t care for their own children could actually be far more disturbing. It messes with the most basic tenets of the family, of love, caring, security and loyalty.

Matilda

The only way you can create convincing, uncaring parents (guardians, teachers, etc)  would be to make them really, really ill (pathetic). Or better yet, turn them into the Bad Guys, as often seen in Roald Dahl books and a lot of the edgier current children’s literature.

“… more or less openly, the author takes the side of the child against his or her parents, who are portrayed as at best silly and needlessly anxious, at worst selfish and stupid…” ⁴

At this point it may be useful to stop and consider the very belief that children’s stories should be primarily about children. Aren’t children occasionally interested in the lives of grownups? Are they not intensely curious about adult life? Unfortunately many, many books today ignore this and pander solely to the egos of children, villainizing every adult and inflating the brilliance and virtue of the young. This emphasis pervades movies as well. Ty Burr writes that too often in films…

“… [p]arents are either yammering, well-intentioned fools or thin-lipped martinets who come around in the last act. And other grown-ups? They barely exist except as two-dimensional objects of fear, ridicule, or blank incomprehension. … Why such paltry options? Why are kids’ movies and TV shows uninterested in adults who are interesting? Because they need to flatter the children who are watching the ads and buying the tie-in toys and, really, paying the bills. Simple as that. The upshot is that your kids get a super-empowering media reality that revolves around them the way the ancients used to think the universe spun around the Earth.” ⁵

Isn’t there room for a more nuanced view of grown men and women and their problems and concerns, in books for children? And what about our senior citizens? Why can’t they play an active role in children’s lives and stories?

I do believe that there is a place for really good, funny, Roald Dahl-esque, anti-parent/anti-teacher tales, but it seems that only the best writers (like Dahl) are able to balance the demonic principals and criminally dense parents with saintly teachers and cigar-chomping, heroic grandmothers (ie. Matilda and The Witches.). The weaker writers and filmmakers (as well as studios and publishers locked into formula) revel in negative adult stereotypes and raise children up on a pedestal.

It’s standard operational procedure these days, in the world of children’s entertainment, to assume that a) the hero is a child, b) the child is always proactive (initiating and propelling all story events), c) the child will solve his/her own problems in the end, and d) the child will learn a Useful Lesson along the way… but they must learn it all by themselves, with no significant input from grownups. There isn’t a lot of value put on the model of an adult teaching a child anything directly. (No wonder children themselves don’t put so much value on what their parents and teachers are telling them!) Such is the wisdom and rather limiting vision of the producers of today’s children’s books, tv shows and movies.

Jungle Book

It’s interesting that fairy tales do not adhere to this proactive/self-solving/self-teaching model. Often enough fairy and folk tale protagonists cannot succeed until they ask for help, most often from a magical, grandmotherly or grandfatherly character. (Or animal.)

“[I]n fairy tales, those who refuse help, or refuse to help others, end up covered with tar or talking frogs and snakes…” ⁶

But back to getting-rid-of-parents…  I’ve left out perhaps the most satisfying solution of all:

5. CREATE A PARALLEL UNIVERSE IN WHICH THEY DO NOT EXIST

As seen in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Kanga is the lone parent in the land. (And the lone female to boot.) She and baby Roo provide the only example of family life in the entire Hundred Acre Wood, besides the confused mob of Rabbit’s friends and relations.

Winnie the Pooh

“What Milne has done is to turn the child’s world upside down, creating a particularly elegant reversal of parental authority. In reality Christopher Robin is a very small boy in a world of adults; but in the Pooh books he rules over – and in the illustrations physically towers over – a society of smaller beings. He is the responsible adult, while those around him are merely animals or his old toys. … Surely part of the universal appeal of the Pooh books is due to the pleasure any child must feel in imagining himself or herself larger, wiser, and more powerful than the surrounding adults.” ⁷

The Wind in the Willows

Animal characters are incredibly effective here. From Aesop to The Wind in the Willows to Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad, we often see animals acting the parts of child-adults: living alone as grownups might, but acting so foolishly that they seem childlike. (Especially Pooh and friends.) Animal stories, in the end, provide the best of both worlds. They are characters that children can immediately identify with, but who can also lead an enticingly independent life, with nary a grownup in sight.

Frog and Toad

___________________________________

¹Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment; The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. (New York: Random House, 1975) p. 98

² Richard Schickel, The Disney Version: the Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney (Revised and Updated), (New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1968, 1985) p. 266

³ Cornelia Meigs, Anne Thaxter Eaton, Elizabeth Nesbitt, Ruth Hill Viguers,  A Critical History of Children’s Literature, Revised Edition (London: Macmillan, 1969) p. 485

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell the Grown-ups. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990) p. 9

Ty Burr, The Best Old Movies for Families. (New York: Anchor Books, Random House, 2007) p. 31

⁶ Op. cit., Lurie, p. 26

⁷ Ibid., p. 145

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Grace
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 16:07:16

    I can understand why it’s often necessary in children’s literature to eliminate parents–if the parents were there or doing their job properly, the protagonists wouldn’t be able to have the adventures that they are having or face the same challenges, as matters would be taken care of by the parents. Removing their function allows the author a great deal more freedom to take young characters to less conventional settings and to give them real challenges to face.

    Reply

  2. Jason B. Wall
    Jun 25, 2011 @ 10:43:58

    Enjoyed reading the article Kim, well done! Desparately trying to come up with some profound and insightful observation or comment and all my child like brain is giving me is “I’ve got nothing.” 🙂

    Reply

  3. Nat Case
    Dec 25, 2012 @ 09:48:53

    Thanks for a great summary. Well put. Two other options:

    1. Make the kids not merely human. Susan Cooper led the idea of giving the kids a higher calling than the parents can comprehend in her Dark is Rising series; Diane Duane’s Wizardry series carries it onward… the parents are told, but come to understand what their children are doing is beyond them. I really like how Duane has walked that line of secret world/family world over the years.

    2. Kill the kids. I’ve only seen this done once in prose, in Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart. It’s about two brothers’ adventures in their “next world,” Nangiyala, and it ends with them going on to yet another world. Heartbreaking and decidedly odd, but really beautiful too.

    Reply

    • Kim
      Dec 25, 2012 @ 21:40:38

      Thanks Nat, nicely done. The Lindgren book sounds interesting, I’ll have to put it on my (ridiculously long) to-read list. Cheers.

      Reply

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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