Monday, May 7, 2012

Parents: Lame or Just Stupid?

Parents suuuuuck! Ugh, with their stupid caveman hairstyles and their Victorian bowler hats. I can hear them in the other room, listening to 8-track tapes and reminiscing about what it was like growing up before oxygen. For the millionth time, yes, we understand how hard it was to milk velociraptors!

You know how it is. Heck, some of you are probably parents yourselves. Go on, hobble over to the mirror and take a look at your saggy skin. Looks like a Salvador Dali painting, am I right?
My Mom's fortieth birthday portrait
My God, you're hideous!

Unless, of course, you're not. But read enough YA and you might get the impression that most parents wear black socks with Birkenstocks and think tweets are what gap-toothed two-year-olds want on Halloween.

It makes sense, of course, that a story told from a teenager's perspective is going to present a skewed view of what adults are like. But is the cliché of parents-as-clueless-rubes really true?

Look, I'm not defending parents. I joined the club a few years ago and promptly yanked my pants up to my chin and started shouting random oldisms like, “You damn kids get off my lawn!” And it's true, I tend to lose stuff more easily now. Like the beat.

I dance like this Doctor Who bobblehead
But modern parents, old enough to have fourteen year old kids but young enough to remember Michael Jackson before he was white, are not necessarily like me and the other codgers. A lot of modern parents are, well, modern.

You used to be able to count on parents having a bad fashion sense or terrible taste in music. They were confused by the clock on the microwave and they walked slowly because they didn't want to upset their pacemakers (which were the size of toasters).

Now parents are mercilessly bombarded with images and videos of the cool people they're supposed to look like if they want to remain young, hip and relevant. If they dare go out the door wearing something that isn't trendy this week or get caught humming something more than a month old, they will actually hear the Internet groan and roll its eyes in disgust. It's like the Internet is a mean girl in a lawn chair parked outside their homes going, “You are SUCH an embarrassment.”

God no! That outfit! Kill it with fire!!
Not only is technological judgment instant, it's ubiquitous. Everyone has a cell phone and even the simplest phone can quickly call up video proof that what your dad is wearing will literally make you die of shame. Parents can confirm this for themselves because they actually know how to use technology fairly well. Who do you think is behind the rapid adoption of Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook? Yes, all were founded by toddlers. But their expansion has been driven by adults who are old enough to buy their own beer. Parents can still be out of touch, of course, but now they have a phone with a ruler app to determine just how far off the mark they really are.

At least earlier generations of parents had the decency to die young. Modern parents are like cockroaches: hardy, nimble and resistant to nuclear fallout. They're living longer and staying healthier into old age. You're more likely to find yourself crewing for your ultra-marathon-running father than you are helping him get to the store for Metamucil.

It may be us older YA writers trying to pass off stereotypically out-to-lunch parents in our stories because those are the kinds of parents who raised us. Our parents didn't have immediate access to the same stuff we did. It was like their parental graydar was switched off and we were allowed to carve out our own niches without their interference.

But for contemporary parents, everything fresh and new shows up on Reddit and is seen at the same time by everyone, regardless of age. The lines of generational demarcation fade as mothers and daughters covet the same jeans and dads and sons get matching tattoos.
Where does one hipster end and the other begin?
If the old tropes are busted and young and old are sharing Pandora stations, is there anything left to argue about?

Plenty, of course. The teen years are still about establishing identity. You can explore the frustration teenagers feel when their identities are co-opted by their parents. You can examine the drama that erupts when main characters push boundaries into realms they might not be comfortable in, just to create a space of their own.

Turns out the generational dance between parents and their children will always include tension whether it's the Twist, the Achy-Breaky or the Dougie.

Maybe your parents really were clueless. If so, write what you know, your audience will pick up on the authenticity of your experience. But if the parents you're trying to depict are part of the information age, don't be afraid to show them as products of their time.

What do you think? Is it time for the clueless parent myth to start collecting 401(k) disbursements?


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