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08 September 2005 @ 09:32 am
On writing kids  
Back in my early 20s, when I was just out of college, I had this notion that I didn't like children, or at least wasn't comfortable with them.

Then, one day as I was walking home from work, I realized this made no sense. No one ever says "I like adults" or "I don't like adults." There are adults I like, and adults I don't like. Of course the same is true for kids, who are no more a single monolithic group than their parents. There was no reason I should like children as a nameless, faceless group. But there was every reason to expect that I would like at least some of the individual, specific kids I met. Kids are individuals, after all, and it was my own foolishness that let me--who'd only been an adult a few years myself--forget that. I've done my best not to forget it again.

So, when I hear someone say an individual kid--or adult--is annoying them, I have some sympathy. But when I hear someone say, "I don't like children," I don't have sympathy anymore. What, all of them? Just because they're children? As if that's the only thing that defines each of them?

This is part of my issue with the entire "child free" movement. No one ought to be pressured into raising children--such pressure seems to be one of the issues those who make being "child free" a part of their identity object to--but eveyone, I think, has an obligation to see each individual child they meet as a human being, to treat them with respect, and to not snap at them or avoid them (and the neighborhoods they live in, and giving tax money to the schools they go to) just because they're children. And, too, to understand that kids are works in progress (though so are adults), and to maybe cut them a little slack for being less than perfect sometimes.

Besides, just think how we'd look at someone who decided they wanted to be "old person free" or "woman free" or "non-white free." We know that sort of deliberate discrimination is harmful and hateful and at times illegal. Why is being "child free" considered somehow more acceptable? (And again, this isn't an issue of not bearing children--note that I don't have kids myself--this is an issue of trying to kick children out of the bit of our society one lives in.)

But I digress.

The point I was aiming for is that when I see children written badly in fiction, it's often because the author seems to go for the generic: the character is A Child, rather than a specific child. When we write characters, we're writing individuals--no matter what their age.

I remember critiquing a story once about a small child lost in a mall. The kid was somewhat generic to start, and I remember that the critique group had questions about that. How did she feel about being lost? we wanted to know. I don't remember the specific suggestions we made, but thinking about it now I wonder: Was this kid excited or frightened at being lost? Did she go screaming for a grownup? Look for a corner she might hide in? Was she glad to be lost--tired of always having someone holding her hand--and determined to make the most of her new-found freedom? Was she frightened at first, then distracted by an ice-cream stand? Did she decide to run screeching up and down the escalator, simply because her Mom never let her do that and now she could?

Even in the smallest incident, there are a million ways a kid can react. Kids are individuals. They don't all have the same desires, or the same fears, any more than adults do.

It also helps, when writing a kids, if you can remember being a kid--remember what it felt like, from inside. (Teen writers definitely have an advantage here!) Memories of being 5, or 10, or 15 do fade with time, which is why being around kids can be useful for those of us beyond our teens and twenties. Not so we can copy what we observe directly onto the page, but as an aid to memory--being with kids reminds one of what being a kid felt like.

Somehow, we have to get inside our characters' heads, no matter what age they are.

And it's all about the specific details, just like everything else in writing.
madrobinsmadrobins on September 8th, 2005 05:55 pm (UTC)
I used to have a friend--a writer, and childless--who would occasionally write stories about families. Her own past was somewhat troubled, and the children in her stories were a weird amalgam of "the perfect child her own parents would have wanted" and sentimentalized claptrap about how much more innocent, pure and perceptive children are than adults. I would read a story and give much the same sort of feedback you gave your workshop-mate. I'm not sure she ever got it; I suspect her child-characters would have been much better if she could just have imagined herself playing the role. As it was, the child characters were more like props or dress accessories than people.

On the other hand I have a friend, also childless, who has written an entire cycle of stories about a kid she doesn't have. She can't sell it because everyone--agent, editors--thinks its a memoir, and can't figure out what to do with it when they learn it isn't.

As far as the Child-Free movement goes...I am wholeheartedly behind people who don't want to have kids. Why should they? People who have kids they don't want cause damage to the kids and themselves. And I recognize the shrillness of some proponents of Child-Free life is a reaction to years of being told that they don't really feel like that, that it's their duty, that they should give Mom a grandchild, that they are somehow less than human to feel this way. That would make me pretty shrill too. But I also think that some of the shrillness is a piece with the sort of in-your-face manner of evangelists everywhere. Do I need to know what your theory about evolution, or child-rearing, or politics, or conspiracy is while I'm drinking my coffee? Very likely not. We're living in shrill times.
Angela L. Foxazang on September 8th, 2005 06:49 pm (UTC)
Very nicely written. Wonderful advice about characterization. I also agree with your sentiments about the child-free community. Its one thing to say that you choose to not have children, its a completely different thing to spout hate towards a whole group.
gryphlet: Dorygryphlet on September 8th, 2005 07:22 pm (UTC)
I have kids. Two of them. Growing up, I didn't want kids. Still don't (though I wouldn't trade the two I have for all the money in the world). I think I'm a decent mother. The kids think so too on occasion. *grin*

Here's the thing though: not everyone _should_ be parents, including (and more importantly) some of those that already have them. I understand this, I accept this. But what I do not understand/accept is how someone can say (as Janni pointed out) "I hate all children" - and then push those prejudices off on the children near them...often being rude to them.

This, imo, is a form of child abuse and it *does* hurt the child. They don't understand that not all adults want to talk to them, be their "friend" or make them feel special/wanted/needed.

I don't expect people to coo over my children, I don't expect strangers to watch my children - that's MY job. But a little civility wouldn't kill a person, yet it could harm that child's fragile little ego. For life, in some instances.

As for writing about children, I like when a writer treats the child as a *person*, because that's what he/she IS. A bit shorter, a bit more trusting/naive, and innocent is to be expected but they should have depth, feelings, and value of their own. They are "humans in training" - honed by their experiences, ideas, and environment just like adults are (it's a lifelong continuing process imo).
I like that show where they solve all the murd3rs: McGonagall-no kidscedarlibrarian on September 8th, 2005 08:24 pm (UTC)
I don't expect people to coo over my children, I don't expect strangers to watch my children - that's MY job.

As someone who has experienced both scenarios, that is, being expected to coo over and watch other people's children, I cannot tell you how much I thank you for not doing either of those things. Mr. Cedar and I live in a small apartment so we don't often have guests, but to hear your guest say, "Don't worry about having your breakables where my toddler can reach them; he's my responsibility and I'll make sure he doesn't break anything," is a huge relief.
(Anonymous) on September 8th, 2005 08:21 pm (UTC)
Peter Watts and I recently published a story ("Mayfly" in Tesseracts 9) that we wrote together, one where the titular character is a small child. Peter is very much on record as not being a big fan of children (I believe a recent post on his site refers to them as "larvae.") Therefore I took on the job of making this child believable.

Could he have done it without me? I suspect so. But I suspect there are plenty of other alien minds he'd rather go poking around in, and a story with a child just wouldn't have popped up over his horizon. Mind you, just because I do have kids, doesn't mean I did it right. She's a girl, I have boys, and I'm many years removed (although happily immature).

Derryl Murphy
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on September 8th, 2005 10:09 pm (UTC)
Definitely, if a young characters' (or any particular characters') brain isn't a place one enjoys going, it makes sense to write other characters instead.

In many ways my thinking comes down to: you don't have to personally like every child you meet, but you do have to treat them with respect, as you would any adult you met.
(Deleted comment)
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on September 20th, 2005 04:14 pm (UTC)
Glad you enjoyed the post!

And sometimes, yeah, I think so, about childhood being too painful to contemplate in any form. Though the flip side of that is that all that painful stuff, I've found at least, can make memories more vivid and fuel the writing, too.

Then there are the folks I've talked to who are uncomfortable with the thought of raising children because their standards are so high, which is interesting--because they feel parents really should be utterly selfless and self-sacrificing all the time, and they know they're not up to the task. Though I've yet to meet any parent who is up to being perfect, and I doubt I could contemplate doing even the work I do do with kids if I imagined I had to be perfect and selfless all the time!

gryphlet: Dorygryphlet on September 8th, 2005 08:40 pm (UTC)
I wish to say I was "the norm" but working in a library shows me (numerous times over) how parents will just drop their kids off and expect *us* to watch them (any idea how many perverts frequent your libraries?? SPECIFICALLY because they know unattended children are there? It's frightening!). Or even if they're *with* the child, they don't *watch* the child.

My children know they are expected to be within eyesight at *all* times while we're out and about. They don't see sh*t, they don't want sh*t, and they won't be _getting_ sh*t. *grin* Sounds mean but it obviously works. I've had strangers stop me to exclaim how 'well behaved' my children are (they have their moments :P)in public. I'll get *A* treat, if they deserve/earn it and if I can afford it.

My son's father and I are no longer together (still good friends though) and his parents will _still_ call me and tell me what a good mother I am. He (the father) said he knew he wanted me to have his only child when he saw my first child never knew (nor did he) what comes after "three". *grin*

No they're not perfect - far from - but they DO understand that 1) things cost and THEY will pay to replace it, 2)some things have a value beyond money and cannot be replaced or fixed, and 3) they need to treat people (and their belongings) as they wish to be treated in kind.

(FTR, they are 17 & 8 and my *cats* break more than my kids ever have at any age!)
Lucy Snyderlas on September 8th, 2005 11:19 pm (UTC)
But ... but children ... they carry the plague!



(I like kids a lot, but every time the niece or nephew has a slight case of the sniffles I end up with bronchitis :-\ )
madrobinsmadrobins on September 9th, 2005 03:07 am (UTC)
Justifiable caution in the face of tiny, charming little carriers is one thing. Hating all children on GP is quite another. (I used to fantasize, when my kids were in preschool, that at some point the teachers left the room and the kids arranged to swap virii: "I've got a stomach bug!" "Trade you for a rhinovirus!") When my inlaws ask if the kids have sniffles or anything like before they visit, I'm straight with them: bronchitis at 88 is not a happy thing. I think parents ought to be aware that what is a mild inconvenience to the child might be life-threatening for an adult...
gryphlet: pouncegryphlet on September 9th, 2005 03:41 am (UTC)
I swear I nearly "blessed" my monitor with coffee when I read this because it's so close to truth it hurts! You send kids to daycare or public schools and you're beseiged by every virus known to man - and then some!

To make things even *more* fun, they pass it to you (and yes, I get bronchitis *every* cold as well - even head colds!) so you can pass it *right back* to them! Vicious circle because I, for one, can never seem to say "noo, don't kiss me!!!!" when my son flashes his little chocolate brown eyes or smiles at me with that little dimpled, befreckled face! Gods, I'm SUCH a sucker for my both kids! heheh