First, Get Rid of the Parents

June 15, 2011

This weekend I saw Super 8, a great little movie where the director, J.J. Abrams, basically throws E.T. and Stand By Me into a blender, adds a pinch of Dawn of the Dead horror show kitsch, and then whips in the most important element to any fairy tale action adventure—he kills off the mom from the get-go.

My kids and I agree that any halfway decent adventure story begins with first getting rid of the mom, sometimes the dad, and better yet both parents entirely. Do I have to list the examples? Star Wars, Harry Potter, James and the Giant Peach, and pretty much any fairy tale you could come up with. It’s such a joke at my house, Emily sometimes shouts out while she’s reading, “Hey Mom, this book is getting good—the mom just died!” And sure enough, J.J. Abrams—who proved in Lost that the conventions of fiction and fantasy run through his veins—kicks off Super 8 with the mom’s funeral. And so the adventure begins. . .

The memoir I’m still struggling to polish up and publish does not include a funeral—my mom was very much alive back then, as she is alive now—thankfully!—but the story I write does begin the same year my mom first took a fulltime job and my parents also began working a lot of nights trying to start their own business to make ends meet.

It was 1979 and the economy stank, so they had little choice, and while my grandmother lived with us too, my brother and I were usually left to our own devices, as were a lot of our friends whose parents were also sucked into a black hole of work and responsibility. No one was dead, no one disappeared, but it seemed parents were suddenly ghost-like and peripheral, and we kids were happy with our newfound freedoms.

The adventures we had in those times sometimes were minor and sometimes were sketchy, but all of them depended on the basic framework that all such shenanigans require—bravado, independence, and a touch of stupidity on the case of the teenagers, plus that healthy helping of benign neglect from the parents.

That phrase “benign neglect,” comes from my friend and fellow writer Ladette Randolph, and she uses it to describe how she managed—in no particular order—to mother her kids while she also wrote, worked, and stayed sane. Ladette’s idea is that sometimes leaving adolescents to direct their own lives is not only benevolent, but often necessary—whether it’s continuing to throw them outside every day, letting them fend for themselves in the kitchen, not demanding they check in every hour, and telling them every now and again they have to make their own way home. It’s a difficult and scary balance to sort out, especially when parents don’t have a choice, which in today’s economy—about as lousy as it was in 1979—is pretty much most parents including me. 

But the upside of that benign neglect is opportunity for adventure—or at least a life less managed—for kids today. And while their independence might not necessarily lead to a Super 8 style of adventure involving M-80s and zombies and an alien slightly less benevolent than E.T.—it also shouldn’t require the death of one or more parents in order to get jump started.

And despite the fact that my kids are caught up in their own adventures, my daughter Emily has recently taken the time to nag me over the fact that I haven’t so much neglected my blog these past few months as I have completely abandoned it. Perhaps with Emily’s careful attention and prodding, I’ll do a better job making more posts. We’ll see. . .


2 Responses to “First, Get Rid of the Parents”

  1. MOM said

    You thought we were out working all those nights. HA HA HA HA We were out parteeing hearty. We have every intention of burning out rather than wearing out, so don’t expect a big inheritance.

  2. Ha, ha. Oh wait, you’re serious? Dang. . .

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