Parent and Adult With Distance: Rivalry

Yesterday, I introduced the adult with distance, a character who often mirrors and complements the parent’s role in a character’s relationships. But the world’s more complex than just connections to a specific character, so I’m going to look at a different issue; how the parent and the adult with distance interact.

“Why do grandparents and grandchildren get along so well? They have the same enemy: the mother.”

–Unattributed, found in a cryptogram puzzle.

In many stories, the parent and the adult with distance are set up as rivals. Part of this is a fact about the differences presented in the last article; the adult with distance can portray himself to the character as more likable than the parent because he isn’t held responsible if she doesn’t “grow up the right way”, and his separation may allow him to see her growing up in a way that the parents might not. But most of it is the similarities between the parental role and the adult with distance role; both can serve as teacher, trusted ally, and role model, and if one gets to fit one of these roles more than the other, it’s not unlikely that jealousy will come into play.

The apparent rivalry between the parent and the adult with distance is further magnified through the adult with distance’s trusted outsider role. When a child gets in a fight, runs into something too big for her, or is otherwise emotionally shaken, the logical person to go to is the parent, right? But there are times when the child just can’t get away with that. Fighting with a parent, peer pressure against using the parent as a confidante, parental nonacceptance of the emotion or situation in question (whether real or imagined), or any of a number of other things can make running to Mom or Dad not an option, but when an authority’s needed, where else is the kid to go but to the adult with distance? Unfortunately, the parent isn’t necessarily going to see it that way. “Where did I go wrong?” “What is it that [adult with distance] is doing better?” After all, being a source of comfort and guidance is the parent’s job. It’s particularly difficult for the parent when the child’s reasons for going to the adult with distance instead are perceived only—one who really was on the child’s side, or who isn’t going to be judgmental about the situation in question—since it’s seen as an unacceptable failure in the parental role. But people don’t like seeing themselves as failures, so scapegoating one of the other two members of the triangle is a ‘logical’ solution, and since adults have more agency than children, the adult with distance is the logical target.

Further complicating the conflict, the adult with distance is a natural ally of the child, particularly during intrafamily squabbles. Neutral to begin with, he’s as often as not approached by the child first, so his bias on the conflict is likely to skew more towards her viewpoint. And that’s before you factor in attempts to come across as more on her side for purposes of comfort, let alone whatever biases he might have from picking up on already present tensions from the parent. (Vicious cycle? You bet!) As if the parent’s position isn’t difficult enough, the adult with distance might actually get involved on the child’s behalf, potentially undercutting the parent’s authority.

It isn’t a one-way issue, either; the adult with distance is just as likely to have issues with the parent. There he is, getting the child’s-eye view of the situation (if filtered through his own experiences, which can be more biasing or less biasing—or both at the same time) and probably experiencing a certain amount of indignation on the child’s behalf. He might have issues with the parent’s style or approaches to child-rearing. If he himself is taking on the child due to not having offspring of his own, he might resent the parents for the fact that they do, particularly if they seem grudging about ’sharing’.

And that isn’t even taking into account non-kid-centered tensions between the parent and the adult with distance—relations with a young character may be life-changing, but that doesn’t mean characters should be centered around them.

But just because the rivalry’s popular doesn’t mean it’s the only way the dynamic between the parent and the adult with distance can play out. Tomorrow, I’ll look at some less confrontational relations between the two.

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