Adolescence is a precarious life stage where many youth ride a fine line between the blithe spirit of childhood and the burgeoning responsibilities of adulthood, but the struggle with this complicated transition can be eased with parental guidance and a consistent atmosphere of familial cohesion. While marginally involved parents of adolescents affect their children adversely by leaving them to their own imprudence, parents who are vigilant about their child’s adolescent upbringing may still do more harm than good if their parental choices are made out of fear and disconnection and without a sense of collective responsibility. In Joyce Carol Oates’, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, Connie, the teenaged protagonist of the story has a strained relationship with her mother, and her father is emotionally absent from the family. These circumstances leave Connie to tread the waters of adolescence without any real guidance. Her choices to be vain and promiscuous eventually make her prey for an unscrupulous impostor. On the other hand, Daisy, the protagonist of Anne Tyler’s, Teenage Wasteland, consistently tries different ways to get her adolescent son, Donny, to make more responsible choices. Daisy is very involved in her son’s life and Daisy’s husband, Matt, is also present when he is not working. However, it is Daisy’s perception of herself as a failure that is palpable; seemingly even to Donny, leading him to devalue his mother’s opinion, make poor choices and eventually run away from his family.
At first glance, Oates’ and Tyler’s stories are similar in their portrayal of two adolescents struggling with the uncertainty of the teen years and their parents ineptly navigating these difficult times along with them. On second look, the style of parenting employed by each set of parents reveals a divergence. While Connie’s adversarial mother and emotionally distant father are peripherally aware of Connie’s doings, Donny’s parents, Daisy and Matt, actively meet with the principal of Donny’s school, send their son for a psychological evaluation, and pay for a tutor to help Donny improve his grades and aid in his personal development. Similarly, though, neither Connie’s nor Donny’s parents make a difference in positively impacting the teenagers’ lives. Both parenting styles, though one proves to be more methodical and active, beg the question of whether or not these fictional parents want to raise their children at all as they happily let others take on their parenting responsibilities and fail miserably at keeping their children involved in the family unit. Closer analysis of both stories exposes an even deeper quandary—that these adolescents are acutely aware of the disconnection between the way their parents tell them to behave and how these pair of parents actually model this behavior in daily life. In turn, their children are further disillusioned at the disparity between the social idea of parents as role models and the reality that their parents are fallible and clueless. Ultimately, it seems, regardless of their shoddy attempts at parenting, both sets of parents allow their personal issues to keep them from effectively protecting their children and creating a family atmosphere conducive to its members’ success.
Many people have idyllic dreams of pairing up and starting a family, but few are really prepared for the diligence required to raise children with the confusing teenage years only serving to provide added complexity to rearing children. For Connie’s nameless parents and Donny’s parents, Daisy and Matt, rearing children requires more of them than they are able to provide. The gladly oblige when given opportunities to relinquish the responsibilities of rearing their children. Overall, Connie’s parents are not really interested in her life. Her mother does not ask questions with the expectation of a qualified answer, nor does she make any attempts to call out Connie’s body language or the nervousness in her voice when she answers. Connie’s mother mentions other girls who are talked about in their small town, asking “What’s this about the Pettinger girl?” (Oates 616). If her mother cared about Connie, she might have noticed that, “Connie would say nervously, ‘Oh her. That dope’” (616). Connie’s nervousness when answering her mother is a clear sign that Connie is hiding something and is not as aware or innocent as she portrays. Connie’s parents also allow her girlfriend’s father to drive Connie and her friend to the mall, “and when he came to pick them up again at eleven he never bothered to ask what they had done” (614). In reality, Connie and her friend are racing across a dangerous road to a restaurant that is a hangout for older kids. On one evening in particular, Connie willingly has a sexual rendezvous with a boy in his car in an alley, yet, neither of her parents asks for details about her evening. Only Connie’s sister, June asks her how the movie was. The lack of details in Connie’s reply of, “So-so,” (615) never alarms anyone that she isn’t seeing movies. Connie’s mother is accepting of Connie’s answers that “drew clear lines between herself and such girls and her mother was simple and kindly enough to believe her” (616). It would seem that Connie’s mother is not involved in her daughter’s life, and if she were, she might be able to tell that her daughter was lying. However, in the beginning of the story, Oates’ reveals that “her [Connie’s] mother noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn’t much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it.” (614) It would seem, then, that Connie’s mother is making a choice to ignore the signs that Connie is not relating the truth and is simply not interested in actively parenting her daughter.
Daisy, on the other hand is trying to be present in her son, Donny’s life, but she exudes a demeanor that she is constantly at a loss of what to do as a parent. Rather than refusing to go the extra mile to be an effective parent of a teen, she does not have the self-esteem to allow her to believe she can be an effective parent. She has to be called into the principal’s office to “learn that Donny was noisy, lazy, and disruptive…” (Tyler, 36). As a former fourth grade teacher, one would think Daisy would know what is expected of her son in school and how to direct him into being a model student, but she pitifully defends herself to the principal and worries more about how she must seem to the principal rather than what action she must take to intervene in her son’s life. It is later revealed that Daisy is exhausted by the effort required to help Donny. When called to school again for Donny’s increased behavioral issues, she overlooks the slight improvements in his grades with her help and only focuses on how she and her husband must appear to the principal: ”an overweight housewife in a cotton dress and a too-tall, too-thin insurance agent in baggy, frayed suit” (37). Steeped in her own lack of self-worth, Daisy is quick to listen to the psychologist’s suggestion to send Donny to a tutor named Cal even though his grades were improving and the psychologist determined Donny did not have emotional problems. The psychologist comments that Donny seems to lack self-worth. Though Daisy lay in bed that night pondering self-worth, she never acknowledges that exhibition of her own esteem issues may be modeling the behavior to Donny she so desperately wants him to overcome. She seems relieved that someone else will have to be responsible for Donny’s progress though, “at home Donny didn’t act much different,” (38) once he began seeing Cal.
Little lies and half-truths told by parents may go unnoticed by small children, but as children grow into adolescence they gain awareness of the division between what their parents say and what they do. For some children, this decreases their respect for their parents. For others it simply levels the playing field as mothers and fathers lose the hold they once held over their children and the human flaws of parents are laid bare for their children to scorn. Whether Connie’s mother is willingly accepting Connie’s half-truths or is clueless, Connie reveals her poor opinion of her mother stating, “her mother was so simple, Connie thought, that it was maybe cruel to fool her so much” (Oates 616), but it’s Connie’s observance of her mother’s behavior that exposes her real contempt for her mother. Connie notices “her mother went scuffling around the house in old bedroom slippers and complained over the telephone to one sister about the other, then the other called up and the two of them complained about the third one…” (616). If Connie’s mother was kind to everyone, but Connie, she might believe her mother when she chides Connie about her vanity: “Stop gawking at yourself, who are you? You think you’re so pretty?” (614). But Connie’s mother seems to take issue with most people leading Connie to believe that her mother is flawed. Connie’s mother may well be flawed and struggling with her own faded beauty and passionless marriage, but the lack of consistency between her words and behavior nullify any impact her reprimands might have on the teenager.
Similarly inconsistent in word and action, Daisy effectively helps Donny with his homework after her first meeting with the principal, but she is discouraged by Donny’s seeming ineptitude. Later in the story Donny alludes to his own awareness that his seeming inability is really an intentional lack of effort on his part. When Cal, Donny’s tutor, asks him about doing his homework, Donny says, “Oh, well, I might do it sometimes, but not just exactly how they want it” (Tyler 37). With this statement it seems that Donny is capable, but choosing to rebel to assert his own freedom. At Cal’s urging, Daisy gives Donny increased freedom: “They let Donny stay out later, they didn’t call ahead to see if the parties were supervised, and they were careful not to grill him about his evening. They were not allowed any questions at all about any aspect of school, nor were they to speak to his teachers” (38). Though Donny hasn’t earned this trust, Daisy’s parenting choices easily vacillate as Cal suggests giving Donny more leeway. Again, her lack of self-worth intervenes with her ability to effectively parent and she believes that Cal knows what’s better for her son than she does. Donny sees this and uses it to manipulate the situation to his advantage. Giving her parental power over to Cal only leads to further contempt for Daisy and Matt as Donny “still seemed to have a low opinion of his parents” (38). Though his teacher calls to say his grades have slipped and Donny has not shown any marked improvement in his behavior at home, Daisy’s inability to believe in her own value as Donny’s parent permits her to blame the teacher and continue to believe in the dodgy rules Cal has enacted. Daisy loses her footing as a respected parent in the eyes of her son because he has transitioned his respect to Cal. As Donny’s allegiance is further transferred to Cal, Daisy can’t comment on Cal without Donny insisting, “you’re just feeling competitive…and controlling” (40). By the time Daisy is cognizant that Cal is just a figurative pied piper, noting that “she didn’t like Cal’s smile, which struck her now as feverish and avid—a smile of hunger” (42), Donny has been expelled from school and is in rapid decline as all of his parental figures have left him flounder.
While both sets of parents struggle to make peace with their current place in life, it is obvious they continue to battle old demons from their own youth. The teenage years are defining years, but these parents are extremely unsuccessful at helping their children navigate through their difficulty. Oates and Tyler both seem to touch on the issues that these mothers are facing with the stories’ fathers resorting to absence or sarcasm to deal with their disillusionment with parenting. Connie is aware of her mother’s cynicism with Oates reminding, “her mother had been pretty once too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie” (Oates 614). Connie’s mother’s distress over her own faded beauty is the cause of her bitterness. She is also in a marriage that lacks passion. Connie’s father doesn’t interact with the family at all. He goes to work, comes home and reads the paper during dinner, and then goes to bed. Connie’s father is described as nice, quiet, bald and hunched with the action of the household going on around him. Even the adult impersonating a teen, Arnold Friend, who eventually preys on Connie, comments that her “nice, old bald-headed daddy” (622) would not be coming to save her. And though Connie calls on her father when she is faced with the danger that Arnold Friend brings to her porch, he does not come. What Connie has been wanting all along is made known when she is gripped by the fear Arnold Friend brings. She will never know the safety of her father’s love, receive validation of her beauty, or know an example of how she should demand to be treated by the opposite sex. Her father fails her because he was emotionally absent when he was physically at home and with his physical absence he is not emotionally connected to Connie to know that she is in danger.
Donny’s father, Matt, is described as tall and thin and sarcastic. His suit is frayed which insinuates some form of activity or that he is slovenly. Most of his interactions with Daisy involve sarcasm and he even seems to make a joke of Daisy’s exasperation. He is confused when he learns of Donny’s issues, but Tyler never allows for interaction between father and son. Matt shows up, but not in a way that Donny needs. Donny needs to be instructed on how to be a man and he is at work or out of the office when opportunities arise for him to be a father, teacher or role model, leaving Daisy to handle Donny on her own.
Unfortunately, Daisy can’t handle Donny’s issues. She is engrossed in her own self-esteem issues. She is too obsessed with how others perceive her and too steeped in her lack of belief in her own ability. Perhaps it is her own childhood that keeps her from believing in her parenting aptitude. She comments, “oh, wasn’t it awful being young? She’d had a miserable adolescence herself and had always sworn no child of hers would ever be that unhappy” (Tyler 38-39). Mired in her own misery over her awful adolescence, Daisy is ineffective as a parent because she doesn’t feel she can know what the right thing to do is. She straddles the scales of balance trying to figure out what she did wrong in Donny’s prepubescent years: “Had she really done all she could have? She longed—she ached—for a time machine. Given one more chance, she’d do it perfectly—hug him more, praise him more, or perhaps praise him less. Oh, who can say…” (37). Again, Daisy struggles with her imperfection rather than looking at what she does right to positively impact Donny’s life. Daisy’s inability to accept her own imperfection and move on to be the best parent she can be prevents her from being an effective parent at all.
After Donny is expelled Daisy seems to give up on Donny and Donny gives up as well. His life after expulsion and Cal is summarized: “Donny went to his new school every morning, plodding off alone with his head down. He did his assignments, and he earned average grades, but he gathered no friends, joined no clubs. There was something exhausted and defeated about him” (42). Daisy is lost and disconnected and now, so is Donny. Community is important and a sense of belonging is crucial. Because Daisy and her husband didn’t provide this for Donny, he runs away. Daisy and Matt didn’t vigilantly pursue family roles and she and her husband were not role models. Left to his own devices, Donny is figuratively lost, and with his running away—literally as well.
Psychologist, Dawna Markova, Ph.D writes, “As adults, we must ask more of our children than they know how to ask of themselves. What can we do to foster their open-hearted hopefulness, engage their need to collaborate...show them ways they can connect, reach out, weave themselves into the web of relationships that is called community.” If Daisy and Matt and Connie’s mother and father had sought to engage their teenagers in just one of the ways that Markova suggests in her statement, would these two adolescents have shared a positive fate rather than the dismal ending Oates and Tyler present? The first part of Markova’s statement tasks parents—the adults who, technically, are supposed to have the ability to rise above their own circumstances—to prompt their children to want more for themselves. If Connie had been inspired by her parents to want more than to be thought of as pretty and to receive attention from boys, she may have never attracted the attention of Arnold Friend. Had Daisy found ways to think less about her family’s shortcomings and focus on her family’s aspirations, Donny may have chosen not to cut class and hide beer and cigarettes in his locker. He may have seen the importance of getting good grades and putting forth his best effort. In line with the rest of Markova’s statement, children need their parents to fill their need to belong and keep their spirits up so they can remain hopeful. The parents of these two short stories never connect with their children and subsequently their children never achieve a sense of belonging to a positive community that fosters connection and a feeling of the liberating effects of hope. Children are not equipped to figure it out on their own. Oates and Tyler depict this fact very well, but more importantly, Tyler’s story portrays parents who are making attempts to share what they know and involve so-called experts to help their capricious son. Yet, even these parents are failing at effective parenting as much as Oates parents who are doing little or nothing to nurture their daughter. Successful parenting, it seems, is not defined by being negligent, overly disciplined, or permissive, but by being diligent. Connie and Donny’s parents give up on their children. Though Oates story is called, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?—a parent’s worrisome questioning of their child to ensure they remain on the right path—this question is never actually uttered by either of Connie’s parents to Connie. For Donny, after he is expelled, his parents feel that they have exhausted their options and no longer actively give him guidance or encouragement. For all of their attempts at getting him the help he needs, Daisy and Matt are more interested in what they aren’t than what they could help their children become. The end of Teenage Wasteland describes a dreary scene for the family, in which, both parents have aged and their younger daughter is staying home less and less. For the families in these two short stories it is never more apparent that children are the product of their environment. As the parents are lost, so are the children.