Parenting is a funny topic in science fiction and fantasy. Many stories seem to avoid it altogether by killing off all the parents! I have also seen quite a number of stories where a woman goes on the run with a baby, but doesn't seem to have to deal with any of the normal things that babies do (or that women's bodies do when they have had a baby recently).
Reggie said she really likes to see healthy parent-child relationships in fiction, and many times, such opportunities are lost. Just because the relationship is healthy doesn't mean there is no conflict; we can have conflict with people even though we are on the same side! Glenda pointed out that close relationships mean vulnerability, and that always means great storytelling opportunities.
What is the role of a parent? In our world we see parents as helicopters, parents as friends, parents as authority figures. Parents can have many roles at once. What are the roles that parents play in your world?
Often times, children are completely avoided. "No, there are no children in this town, just don't ask why." But the presence of children reveals a lot, and even tiny moments observing interaction with children and how they are taught can be terrific for a story. In my story "Let the Word Take Me" I made sure to include children and to show them being taught to be social creatures, because I had felt that was a major missing piece in my understanding of the Tamarians in Star Trek: TNG's "Darmok."
If you're looking for inspiration on how to create unusual family structures, animal species can provide excellent models.
Glenda mentioned a story in which a species laid its eggs in the ocean, but they were not officially considered young (i.e. children) until they survived to a certain age. Even in our world people disagree about when a child is officially considered to be living. What kind of beliefs are there in your world about the beginning of life?
Children are sometimes deliberately used as a bridge between cultures, because of their ability to learn different cultures and languages. Alan Dean Foster had a community where humans and grasshopper-aliens were raised together to try to get past instinctive fears between the adults. Sheila Finch examined the assumptions behind having a child go and learn an alien language in her story "Out of the Mouths."
Glenda encouraged us to ask questions like, "Who is the nurturing parent?" Is it a parent, or perhaps a grandparent?
How do children learn to speak? Do they learn from their parents, or from others? Do they learn from adults at all, or from siblings?
Do parents take care of their children in a particular place, such as a homeland? Does the extended family stay together? What is the expected size of a family?
Family size can depend on a lot of factors. Spencer noted that in a small isolated village working at the subsistence level, it's common to have big families with lots of interbreeding over years. Culture can influence family size, and so can sources of income and food.
Do kids get the chance to be kids? Before child labor laws, they really didn't. These days, teens can "be teens." But in earlier times, older kids had a big role in raising younger kids. Also, children died a lot more often. There was no such thing as retirement, meaning that people could benefit from spreading out their children over a long period of time.
In current America, there are a lot of children being raised by daycare providers and by teachers because their parents are too busy working. Think about the link between local climate, available jobs, and the role of children.
Is there birth control? Just answering that question alone will tell you a lot about family structure and parenting duties.
Cultural traditions about parenting change slowly, but they do change.
Who is licensed (socially) to give advice? Many people feel very free to give advice to anyone who is pregnant, or to the children of others. On the other hand, some people feel that only they should interact with their own children in any disciplinary manner. Reggie asked what we would do if we saw a kid running away from a group, and the parent hadn't noticed. There are distinct taboos surrounding the interaction between children and adults who are not their parents. When is it all right to touch children? To speak to them? Is it all right to try to control their behavior, and if so, when?
What does it mean to be "good with kids"?
Among parents, there can be a shared unspoken bond of parenthood. As parents, we know we've been through that initiation. We have a shared, esoteric knowledge of sleepless nights and trials unfit to be spoken of at the dinner table. Raj suggested there is also a secret society of grandparents - which I can totally believe!
Reggie noted that family dynamics are more commonly explored in literary fiction rather than genre. However, we all agreed that we'd love to see a whole family sent on a quest! We've seen the family in the wagon train looking for a new home. We've seen them looking for new jobs in a new city. Why not give them something fantastical to do? We could put a family group on a space ship, escaping a scandal, etc.
It was a really great discussion. Thank you to everyone who attended. Join us this afternoon at 3:00pm Pacific to talk about Genre and Description!
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