While discussing Donald Duck in class the other day, a few of my classmates got on the topic of the nephews featured in “Vacation Time” and how their parents were never really mentioned or shown in the comics. This then dissolved into a discussion about how many Disney characters lack parents or their presence is basically nonexistent.
After some further thought, I could not help but notice how many fictional characters across several types of media that I have come to know and love are seriously lacking in the parent department. Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender and Naruto from the famous manga series were the first characters to come to mind.
Now while both of these characters obviously have adults in their lives that serve as mentors of sorts, it is hard to replace all the benefits that come from being a part of a strong family unit from birth. I am currently taking a developmental psychology class with a focus on adolescence and emerging adulthood and the importance of a supportive family unit has quickly become a recurring theme as the semester has progressed. One study supported this idea and found that “family connections and a secure emotional base [are] crucial for the positive development of young people.”
There are several common stereotypes about adolescence, but when you get to the heart of it, “from physical development to social and emotional changes, adolescents are dealing with many different things.” And with this statement in mind, it is safe to assume that this psychology is just as true for fictional adolescents in comics and television shows as it is for adolescents all around the world.
Both Naruto and Aang struggle with a need to prove their worth throughout their childhoods. For Naruto, if his parents were alive to help him navigate the challenges he was forced to face alone, I think the character he turned out to be would have been completely different. He probably would not be constantly striving to gain the approval of others as a teenager to the degree he does nor would he be as severely lacking in self-esteem. His parents could have served as a safe haven for Naruto as he experienced the inevitable challenges that adolescence brings as well as training to become a ninja simultaneously.
Aang on the other hand is raised within an atypical family unit as a monk. And while he has a strong relationship with his mentor, due to his role as the Avatar, other children at the monastery abandon him. But to make matters worse, early on during his adolescence that one strong bond with his mentor is broken when he is killed. This event has lasting effects on Aang as a character and I think influences how he interacts with other characters in the show, such as Katara who serves as somewhat of a maternal figure during the first season. At the beginning of the series, Aang often acts immature and petulant, but over time he slowly matures. I believe this is strongly influenced by his interactions with other characters and the bonds he forms, like that of a family, with them as the show develops.
All and all, I would say that the impact of having a supportive family is evident in our culture as much as it is in media for fictional characters. But even with this knowledge, it still leaves me to question whether or not these characters would be as strong or go to the lengths they do if they did come from a strong family unit. Would Naruto feel as compelled to go out and defeat his foes and become the next Hokage? Would Aang still have felt obligated to fight the Fire Lord if his people, his mentor included, were not forced to extinction? I cannot say for sure either way, but what I do know is that having a family, regardless of its makeup, that cares and supports you during adolescence is essential for healthy development. And I would be curious to see to what extent it effects certain characters compared to others.