What do the following people have in common: Jane Austin, Oliver Twist, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Littler Orphan Annie, Mowgli, Peter Pan, Bilbo and Frodo, Dorothy Gale, Heidi, the Maze Runner boys, and Harry Potter? They are all orphans. Add to that list heroines in fairy tales who were motherless and you have many of the most famous fictional characters in history. Have you ever wondered why so many orphaned protagonists appear in stories written for children?
John Gatto, in his book A Different of Teacher, chronicles the changes in children’s literature starting in the 1800’s, with the protagonists in the newer literature becoming increasingly independent of mom and dad. Horatio Alger became the best selling author in American history with his books about boy heroes who, through their adventuresome spirit, hard work, determination, and self-reliance overcame great challenges to succeed in life. Parents were nowhere to be found.
Hermione, from the Harry Potter books, loses her parents, as does the protagonist Tris in Divergent. In The Hunger Games, heroine Katniss’s father is deceased and her mother depressed and ineffectual. It’s no different in fairy tales: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Belle have no living mother to guide them. These heroines all must forge ahead without the aid of their parents.
In this age where helicopter parents hover, children don’t seem to be developing critical qualities like grit, self-efficacy, and street smarts. We might do well to follow the example of these fictional stories by giving kids more opportunities for independence, adventures, critical thinking, problem solving, self-reliance, self-motivation, and the freedom to take risks and make mistakes. Parents need not be completely out of the picture; the death of parents in the stories is a metaphor for children’s need for space to develop self-confidence and resilience. This is particularly true during importance developmental transition times, such as late high school and the last year of college.
The heroine’s journey and the hero’s journey all include times when young adults enter a forest or a castle, metaphors for the process of going inward to find the wisdom and strength needed to face up to the challenges of adulthood. They do this with the aid of mentors, not parents. One way moms and dads let go is by trusting that their children will find the right advisor at the right time. The old truism that the teacher will appear when the student is ready holds true here.
The process of letting go should really start in infancy and proceed throughout childhood. We let children self-comfort to fall asleep, feed and dress themselves, handle their conflicts with siblings and friends, advocate for themselves with teachers and coaches, make decisions and live with the consequences of their choices and actions, find their own motivation, and cope with challenges and disappointments. This makes the bigger transitions like going off to college easier because you have prepared both of you for these moments.
You don’t need to be an orphan to grow up confident and brave. You do need parents who understand children’s need for independence and space.