Kids to the Rescue! (or Adults are Stupid)

Stop me if you know this one. A group of spunky, intelligent kids gets mixed up in a plot to destroy/kidnap/steal/control the world/their parents/other kids/a ton of money/puppies/etc, and the adults they would normally rely on to solve problems like this are dead/captured/kidnapped/stupid and/or otherwise don't believe the kids.

It's the plot all children's fiction must rely upon, because children's fiction must have child (or teenage) protagonists in order for its target market to enjoy it. And those protagonists must somehow become involved in an otherwise adult plot, even though they're not (adults, that is). It's the plot of Spy Kids, Goonies, Parent Trap, and every single Home Alone movie.

It's not always bad, but it can be done badly. It all depends on why the kids have to save the world instead of their parents.

  1. Adults are too dumb, disinterested, or just plain grown up to believe the truth. The spunky kids, then, must deal with the problem on their own, often with the parents working against them. I'm sure kids love this trope, but I can't stand it. It's insulting, sure, but it's also unrealistic and teaches kids unreasonable amounts of disrespect (says the guy who's had to parent kids raised on this trope). Examples: Home Alone, Parent Trap, Lost Boys, Goonies.
  2. Adults are incapacitated or otherwise out of the picture, and the spunky kids must fill their shoes, even though they're totally unqualified. It's even worse if qualified adults exist, but are too dumb, disinterested, etc. to get involved. Example: Spy Kids.
  3. Child of prophecy. The adults cannot save the world because it is not their destiny--even though they're more qualified. Example: The Sword in the Stone; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; The Hobbit; Lord of the Rings; Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers.
Not all these reasons are inherently bad. Combined with one or more of the better reasons below, they can work quite well. (Also I should point out that I really like Lost Boys, Goonies, and pretty much any plot with a Chosen One (Power Rangers notwithstanding)).

  1. Supernatural or unnatural ability. The spunky kid is actually capable of something nobody else can do. Their ability just happens to be needed before they have a chance to grow into adulthood. Examples: Harry Potter, Ender's Game.
  2. Adults are incapacitated or otherwise out of the picture, but qualified adults don't exist, and the kids manage to win in spite of their shortcomings. Examples: Eragon, Star Wars.
  3. Adults cannot be involved, either because the rules of the conflict don't allow it, or because the spunky kids will fail if the adults know. Examples: Jumanji, Zathura, Adventures in Babysitting.
If you're writing kid's fiction, the main thing is to think about why this kid is the only one who can save the world. Why are they the most qualified, or the only available option? Is it because they can do something no one else can, or because all the adults in the story are useless?

Anyway, that's just my opinion. How do you feel about this trope? Where have you seen it done well? Done poorly?


jjdebenedictis said...

I agree its an unrealistic trope, but I do see how giving the child characters power is an important fantasy to create if you want the story to be enjoyable to kids.

There are plenty of adult books that include an unrealistic fantasy too (e.g. hot gal falls for nerdish guy who did something heroic; hot guy inexplicably infatuated with worthy-but-boring gal.) I don't think they're valid story choices either, but I understand the seductiveness they have for readers. It's all about providing a self-insertion fantasy.

However, you point out some great exceptions to the useless-adult trope. I especially like the "Adults cannot be involved" one; that makes the trope a valid plot choice rather than a pandering one.

Myrna Foster said...

How much do I love this post?

The story loses so much tension when I know that the parents/adults are there to bail out the kids. But there really are situations where the parents can't help. The writer just has to convince me. I could argue that the best books usually have more than one of your elements (they're hard to categorize), but I liked your examples.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I agree completely that this is overdone, but I also understand the drive to remove parents from the equation so the kid can be the hero. In some ways, YA fiction is easier because the kids are plausibly more independent, and much less likely to let the parents in on anything they are doing.

While you don't see it much in MG, YA is filled with parents who are the menace themselves. I read one MG book with this as the case - it was a creepy tale about a borderline psycho Dad - and I steered the kids away from that one. I think I would have rather seen the Dad dead, than evil.

I like #3 as well, but I agree that combinations can make it more compelling.

Great post! :)

worver: priate - pirates without spellcheck

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Also: See this conversation on Nathan's Forums

Adam Heine said...

Cool, Susan, thanks for the link. Didn't realize so many people were thinking about this lately.

Matthew Delman said...

Kind of a side trope to this one is the Dead Parents cliche. This is the easiest way to make the kid into the default protagonist, by killing off the parents before the story even begins.

It avoid the much stickier "Parents are Useless" trope because you don't have to explain why the parents aren't helping if you've already made your kid hero an orphan.

vic caswell said...

great post! (susan steered us over here from nb's forums) i like how you divided it all out. i still wish we would get more creative about not making mom and dad evil or dead, though. come on you brilliant people, there has to be a way around it! :) i guess the storyline is the thing- some controversies a.k.a. bullies at school, smaller dangers are things the kids should be learning to handle themselves and can have good parents... some... well mom and dad would swoop in.

Adam Heine said...

Yeah, the evil dead parents trope is done a lot, but it's not inherently bad (to me, anyway). One of the better options I think is that parents cannot be involved because of some inherent rules in the plot. Maybe the kids are trapped in some world away from adults (Zathura), or miles away/hidden from anyone except genuinely evil adults (Holes).

But in the end, it's like you say, aspiring_x: it's the storyline. Even that last concept can make a bad story (Home Alone).

vic caswell said...

well said, mr. heine!

Joshua McCune said...

Excellent post. In my MG story, THE LOST CHILDREN CHRONICLES, the kids were kidnapped by Goblins and taken to a world where there were no parents (Labyrinth like, I guess)...

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Great post, Adam!

This made me think of The Hunger Games. The rules dictate that a young person must participate in the games and Katnis (hope I spelled that right!) steps into the gap to save someone she cares about. The plot totally works because the age rules force her into this situation where she has to fight through horrible obstacles in an attempt to survive and win.

I agree, what you described is the main plot of every kind of MG/YA fiction. Writers do have to find a believable ways of getting rid of the adults. I know I do in my writing! With contemporary YA it can happen organically because so many teens in our culture are pretty much left to themselves. Sad, but true.