By Sally Carpenter
I grew up reading the “Peanuts” comic strip in the newspaper, but I never thought much about the characters until I recently watched “The Peanuts Movie” and something struck me.
Where are the parents?
In the nearly 50 years the strip ran, we never saw the faces of the characters’ parents or even knew their names or anything about them. Charlie Brown’s father was a barber (as was Charles Schulz’s dad) and Peppermint Pattie’s parents were divorced. Outside of that, the parents were a complete mystery.
Cartoonist Schulz made a deliberate decision in drawing the strip not to show adults. In an interview, he said he didn’t find adults interesting. (He also couldn’t draw them. In a rare early Sunday strip that showed the kids standing among a crowd of grown-ups, Charlie Brown appears to be only as tall as a woman’s knee!).
In the earliest strips, the parents at least seemed present. The kids frequently say, “your mother’s calling.” In Lucy’s earliest appearances in 1951, she’s a toddler calling for her dad from her crib—but she never cries out for her mother. Is dad the more comforting parent? Or was this the cartoonist’s personal experience?
The following year, Lucy is seen talking with her mother several times. That is, the reader sees mom’s dialogue balloon but not the person. Then mom vanished until decades later when Lucy’s second kid brother, Rerun, was born. Lucy is so upset that not getting a sister that she kicks Linus out of the house! Isn’t dad at home keeping order? Rerun is seen riding on the back of mom’ bicycle, but we still never catch a glimpse of the parent.
As the kids began attending school, teachers were involved in their lives, but these adults were likewise invisible and mute on paper. In the TV specials and movies, one hears a trumpet “wah-wah” sound whenever the grownups talked. Even on the screen we never see or hear an adult.
In one early strip, Charlie Brown calls the telephone operator and says, “I’m lonely. Can you read me a story?” The thought makes us laugh, but why doesn’t he ask a parent for this favor? Why does he turn to a stranger for nurturing?
This is no “Lord of the Flies” existence in which the kids fend for themselves. All of them live in nice (although not extravagant) and neat homes. They never go hungry and always have spending money for toys and candy. Their clothes are washed and mended, although the fashions never change. Someone organizes the school dances and drives the buses.
Yet the kids must handle their own problems. They have no parental help with homework. No adult tucks them into bed at night. Charlie Brown receives no comfort when he loses another baseball game. No one punishes Lucy when she slugs her kid brother. No adult provides emotional support.
What about Pigpen? Why don’t his parents make him bathe? Are they as dirty as he is? Is his house filthy and untidy? In today’s world, social services probably pull him out of his home and label his parents as inept caretakers.
If Schroeder lived in Los Angeles, his parents would drive him to a private piano teacher and enter him in prestigious music competitions. Lucy would be a precocious child actor with a controlling stage mom. Charlie Brown’s parents would haul him off to a licensed marriage-family therapist to deal with his neuroses.
But the kids seem fairly well adjusted. Yes, they bully, tease, insult, hit, snub and are mean to each other. That’s true of any child. Except for Charlie Brown’s bouts of depression, they seem optimist, happy and content. No gang members, Goth kids or punk rockers in this bunch. Rerun is a bit of a rebel, but nothing drastic.
Obviously the presence of adults would ruin the comic. Modern “helicopter parents” would constantly call and text to check up on their brood. Today’s adults would manage every aspect of their children’s lives. The parents would enroll their kids in every type of organized sport and club and not allow them the time or freedom to play, imagine, dream and, well, just be kids.
In Schulz’s world, the kids build up confidence and resiliency on their own. They fight their own battles. They stand up for what they think is right (The Great Pumpkin) and learn how to bounce back after failure. They negotiate, handle taunts and deal with problems—character traits that adults need as well.
One wonders what the Peanuts kids would be like had Schulz allowed them to grow up. Would they follow the same “absent parenting” style? Would they fade away as their own children began to talk?
The purpose of the comic is to entertain, not to present a manual on child rearing. But it’s interesting to note that as far as I know, “Peanuts” is the only comic with children and no adults. All the modern family comics I know of include both parents and kids. Nobody else has dared to recreate Schulz’s formula—yet.
Schulz would probably say I’m reading too much into his characters. But as fiction writers, we give our character more depth than a security blanket or a pet dog. Novelists need to create total personalities that keep the reader riveted for hundreds of pages. Building a family background into a character will enrich the story.
In my Sandy Fairfax series, Sandy’s parents only appear in two of the four books, but he often makes references to his overbearing father. In the first three books, Sandy makes snide cracks about his brother, Warren, whom we never met until book four. Even when we don’t see the family dynamics behind Sandy, they have formed the person he is.
And one wonders what kind of family setting made Lucy into a crab and Linus into a philosopher.