Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Kidz Only! Adults Keep Out!

image courtesy of Scott Liddell from
One of the rules of writing for children is to:

Create independent characters.

Remember two-year-olds and the common refrain of “Do it myself!”? “Doing it myself,” is how a toddler learns to put on clothes, button buttons, etc. It’s how he grows in his abilities–it’s how he expresses independence. It’s how she gains confidence. It’s the same way with a main character. She is going to have to do things herself to grow and change. Like the old adage of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” a main character will try something and fail, probably several times before he succeeds. But if the adult won’t let the child try and try again, how can the child character grow and learn independence?
You also want to:

Give characters freedom.

Think about this scenario: “What are you doing?” an adult asks. “Nothing,” the elementary age kid answers.
We all know that’s probably not true. Of course the kid is doing something. So why the naught answer? Here are possible reasons:
• the adult may not approve of what he’s doing
• the kid knows what he is doing is not permitted/accepted/approved
• the adult may think what the kid is doing is a waste of time and assign a chore
• the kid knows the adult is not really interested in what interests him
• the kid simply wants privacy and independence
For similar reasons authors keep adults out of stories or limit adult involvement. For example, how can the main character heroine try something a bit risky if adults are “all up in her business?” “You can’t do that–it’s not safe.” Or “That’s a stupid idea; you should …” Adults often have a tendency to take over and keep the child from solving her own problem. I remember one friend telling when she was a child she started writing a poem and her mother got so interested she finished the poem for her. That sent a message to my friend that she couldn’t write poetry. It was years before she tried writing a poem again. Or think about the child who is criticized for the colors she uses when drawing or coloring, i.e. “Cows aren’t purple; they’re brown or black and white.” That says his ideas are not valuable or worthwhile. We have to allow our main characters freedom to express themselves without adults checking their every action.
Don’t forget to:

Focus on kid characters and kid interests.

Remember long summer days and playing outside all day until dark? We discovered new things (at least new to us) and focused on our friends and what they/we were doing. Going home was for when we were hungry, thirsty, or needed the bathroom. At our house, we’d dash in and dash back out with Mom calling out, “Don’t slam the screen door.” The childhood games and adventures were “kids only” activities without need for adult supervision or input. Friends got our jokes and were interested in what we thought was interesting, but what an adult might find trivial. We loved riding bikes, pretending in the tall grass or in the woods, playing hopscotch or ball, picnicking in a graveyard, etc. Besides if we said we were bored, parents usually found something “not fun” to do, like cleaning rooms, or weeding flowerbeds. And it was great when we reached the age we could go to the pool, park or store without an adult. Keep the same perspective for your main characters in your middle grade stories.
And lastly:

Let characters “do their own homework.”

When I was a kid, my siblings had a saying about homework, “only ask Dad for help if you really want to know the answer.” Our father wisely wouldn’t give us the answer–instead he’d help us figure it out. It wasn’t the quickest way to get homework done, but it meant by the time we were done we knew how to solve that math or science problem. If the adult simply gives a child character the answers to their problems, how will he (and the readers) know how to proceed in the future? How will she pass her tests if everything is done for her?
So, if you want a successful main character, limit adult participation. You can have adults busy with something else, at work, or overwhelmed with their own issues. Give your character the chance to discover and grow and change on their own. If necessary, post a sign in your work space that says “Kidz Only! Adults Keep Out!”