Columns > Published on June 16th, 2023

A Ranking of Literary Parents

Original image by Anna Sheets

Parents. Even the best can make the strongest child cringe. They don’t even have to be bad; they just bring out that extra level of embarrassment. And the fact that they’re usually unaware of why, makes it so much worse. In literature, parents are as diverse as they are in real life, when they’re not dead, that is. Some we love, others we hate, and some, we really, really hope we never meet. Here are nine literary parents, ranked best to worst.


Lisa & Maverick Carter from "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas

When it comes to loving and supportive parents, it’s hard to find a better couple than Lisa and Maverick Carter. Lisa’s compassion and Maverick’s self-awareness create a loving and supportive home for their kids. But they aren’t an idealized version of parents. The Hate U Give tackles incredibly difficult themes of racial injustice and police brutality, and the Carter’s aren’t perfect. Maverick doesn’t shy away from owning his past mistakes and wants his kids to be strong enough to not only stand up for themselves, but the people they care about. The character of Starr faces numerous impossible decisions, and throughout it all, her parents allow her the room to make her own choices while supporting her with unconditional love. 

Get The Hate U Give at Bookshop or Amazon

 

Morticia & Gomez Addams from "The Addams Family" by Charles Addams

They’re creepy and they’re kooky, and altogether spooky, but they’re excellent examples of gentle parenting. Morticia and Gomez are far more interested in understanding why Wednesday and Pugsley make the decisions they make, than trying to control or punish them. They invite curiosity and adventure, and they see everything as an opportunity to learn. But even more important, they are their children’s fiercest advocates and strongest defenders. They love their kids unconditionally, and while their parenting methods may raise some eyebrows in many mommy groups, Wednesday and Pugsley know they can embrace their true selves, building the kind of confidence that should be any parents goal.

Get The Addams Family: An Evilution at Bookshop or Amazon

 

Ma from "Room" by Emma Donoghue

The conditions that Ma was forced to raise five-year-old Jack in are unthinkable to most people. Kidnapped, assaulted, and locked in a small room with no hope of escape. It’s an abysmal situation. But Ma tried to make Room a safe place for Jack, and though the situation is awful, Jack is actually fairly well-adjusted. He feels loved, tries to understand the world he lives in, and has a vivid imagination that is appropriate for a child his age. Even after they’re able to escape, and the world becomes overwhelming, it’s the fact that Ma provided such a loving connection that he is able to overcome the confusion and begin learning how to live beyond Room. No one should have to raise a child under those circumstances, but Ma never blames Jack or punishes him for things he can’t control. She simply loves him and is able to endure unimaginable hard choices because of that love. 

Get Room at Bookshop or Amazon

 

James & Marilyn Lee from "Everything I Never Told You" by Celeste Ng

The Lees aren’t bad parents. But they are a shining example of good intentions gone wrong. They want their children to have everything they never did, but they’re so focused on providing that, they inadvertently create a litany of other problems. By trying to avoid their specific struggles, they miss actual problems their kids are experiencing. Unfortunately, this ends in tragedy. But even more heartbreaking is how common this is. No one wants their kids to struggle, and every parent wants more for their children. But if the Lee’s had seen their children for who they were and what they were actually going through instead of trying to redo their own lives through their kids, perhaps they could have avoided a lot of pain all around.

Get Everything I Never Told You at Bookshop or Amazon

 

Tom and Daisy Buchanan from "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Did you forget the Buchanan’s had a daughter? So did they. Okay, maybe not, but while they were playing games with Gatsby, Pammy is left with (we assume) nanny’s and other household staff. While this was probably normal for affluent parents in the 1920s, it’s clear Pammy is just another object to them. Tom and Daisy are clearly not in love, to the point where Daisy has just short of an actual affair with Gatsby. But Daisy chooses to stay with Tom. Not because of vows or their shared responsibility as parents, but because she wants the security Tom’s old monied name can bring them. And if her actions towards Pammy aren’t loud enough, her words—that she hopes her daughter will be “a beautiful, little fool” and marry for money and security, not love—should be.

Get The Great Gatsby at Bookshop or Amazon

 

Caleb and Camille Fang from "The Family Fang" by Kevin Wilson

Annie and Buster Fang are unorthodox, embarrassing, and maybe even a little dramatic. But then they take quirky a bit too far. It could be argued that their antics were intended to cultivate creativity and confidence in Annie and Buster, but it becomes clear that their performance art is all about the parents' need for attention. When both Annie and Buster struggle as adults, Caleb and Camille continue with their ridiculous behavior before disappearing altogether. They’re selfish, a bit self-absorbed, and incredibly immature. Children—even adult children—shouldn’t be the ones putting appropriate boundaries in place. Maybe they aren’t harmful as parents, but they sure aren’t good, either.

Get The Family Fang at Bookshop or Amazon

 

Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood from "Matilda" by Roald Dahl

Most parents would be thrilled to have a child who loves nothing more than to read. But the Wormwood’s are not those parents. They’re bullies, con-artists, and liars. Their cruelty in how the treat Matilda veers well into emotional abuse. Mrs. Wormwood believes brains are a detriment in girls, and Mr. Wormwood is no better. They are shallow, greedy, self-centered, and lazy, and Matilda’s innocence combined with her love of learning highlights all of their flaws. That doesn’t excuse how they treat her, and they deserve every prank young Matilda plays on them. At least, they get exactly what they deserve in the end. But more importantly, so does Matilda—life without them.

Get Matilda at Bookshop or Amazon

 

Jack Torrance from "The Shining" by Stephen King

It might seem unfair to place Jack Torrance so low on the list. After all, he was possessed when he tried to murder Wendy and Danny. But even before that, Jack was not winning any father of the year awards. His drunken abuse had created a chasm in his family, culminating in him breaking Danny’s arm in a drunken rage. So, not great from the start. To make things worse, he decides that taking his family to a remote hotel in the middle of winter is exactly what everyone needs. Spoiler alert: it is not. While the move is supposed to heal the family, Jack neglects them as his own obsessions and vices take over. And while he eventually reaps the consequences of his violent actions, we can only wonder how different their story would be if Wendy urged rehab and counseling instead of isolation.

Get The Shining at Bookshop or Amazon

 

Eva and Franklin Khatchadourian from "We Need to Talk About Kevin" by Lionel Shriver

While the reality of how someone raises a child capable of murder might be complicated, in We Need to Talk About Kevin, it’s less so. Eva is cold and distant, while Franklin is aloof and distracted. From the start, Eva admits to not wanting to be a mother. She struggles with Kevin as an infant, essentially devolving into a battle of the wills. Any psychologist will tell you that’s nothing but a recipe for myriad disasters. Franklin only wants to see the good and Eva only wants to see the bad, and Kevin is stuck in the middle. Does this always lead to murder? No. But what really makes Eva one of the worst parents in literature, is that for all her concerns, she is more focused on proving that she’s right instead of getting her son help. All the tragedy that follows could have been avoided if her own ego wasn’t in the way. As far as Franklin, well, perhaps he should have been a touch more alarmed that his wife was accusing their son of being a sociopath. Ignorance is not bliss.

Get We Need to Talk About Kevin at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Jena Brown grew up playing make-believe in the Nevada desert, where her love for skeletons and harsh landscapes solidified. A freelance writer, she currently contributes to Kwik Learning, Truity, The Portalist, Insider, and The Nerd Daily. In addition to writing, Jena blogs at www.jenabrownwrites.com and is active on bookstagram as @jenabrownwrites. When she isn’t imagining deadly worlds, she and her husband are being bossed around the Las Vegas desert by their two chihuahuas.

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