It’s retro-Thursday, with the second in my earlier series about how to step into the lives of children who have joined our families. For a thorough exploration of the topic, download my free ebook (and sign up to get these blog posts in your Inbox) here.
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In my last post, I discussed how children think in narratives, and how the only slots available for us as stepparents or foster parents are either the villain or the mentor in their story. In this post, I want to look at more characteristics of mentors to see how we can move into that role.
Every Story Has A Villain
One caveat is that your child may not want you to change your place in their narrative. Every story has to have a villain. Real life, of course, is more nuanced, but your children may not be mature enough to understand that dynamic. Until their brains and emotions develop, they will look for a villain to explain why they, as the hero of their story, cannot reach their goal. If you are not the villain, then someone else has to take your place. Most children will resist casting their biological parents as villains, at least permanently, so they must look elsewhere. Stepparents, foster parents, caseworkers, and other adults in authority are the logical choices.
If your child insists on casting you as the villain, there is not much you can do to change his or her mind. Of course, we should take a long look at ourselves to see where we can improve. Even the most biased criticisms of me, for example, never claim that I am too easy-going or patient. There is always room for me to be more kind and understanding.
That being said, sometimes nothing we can do will make any difference. No matter how much we improve, a given child still will not accept us. I have been in that spot with a few foster children, and I know how hard it can be. Everything that you do is wrong, everything that you say is an insult. No matter what you intend, an angry child can view your actions through a prism that turns your best efforts into something malicious, or at least negative. In those situations, all we can do is model what we tell our children – control what we can control and don’t worry about the other person. Be the adult and keep caring about them and enforcing boundaries that they need.
More important, don’t follow that course in hopes that you can change their attitudes. They may or may not change. Care about them and enforce boundaries because it’s the right thing to do.
Mentors are Wise
One common characteristic that we see in mentors is that they are wise. Dumbledore gives Harry Potter and his friends many wonderful and memorable guidelines. When Frodo complains to Gandalf that he wishes he had never received the One Ring, Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” That advice has resonated with readers for decades.
I am not likely in my lifetime to think of such wise things. But all of us can gain more knowledge, which is the foundation of wisdom. We can learn how our children’s experiences have affected them and current practices of how to help. Some of us can track down mental health studies, others will have older and wiser relatives and friends to consult. The Internet has a lot of information, some of which may be pure nonsense. But there also is much good information, whether articles by learned professionals or online groups of experienced parents. We also can learn from our children’s teachers, therapists, and other family members. Wherever we can find worthwhile information, we need to track it down to learn from it.
Of course, we will not be able to follow every piece of advice that everyone gives us. Whatever we learn, we need to analyze and adapt it to our unique situation. We are the experts in balancing our lives, and we need to adapt whatever information and advice we hear.
Mentors Sacrifice for the Hero
Many of the wise guides in our most famous stories make great sacrifices for the hero. In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan sacrifices himself to save Edmund’s life. In Star Wars, Luke’s first mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, does the same. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf falls defending the rest of the company. These dramatic scenes illustrate the bond of love between the mentors and the heroes.
Now, I am not suggesting that we give up everything in service of our children. That practice is not good for us or them. We cannot keep all of our other commitments if we sacrifice everything, and children do not need to have anyone’s world revolve around them.
The mentors in the stories above were facing more serious situations than most of us ever will. However, even if the sacrifice in famous stories is more dramatic than in real life, the principle is the same. We should be willing to sacrifice to help our children get what they need.
The degree of sacrifice should be proportional. There rarely is any need for us to rearrange our schedule for a routine shopping trip. To help our child visit or connect with a biological parent, however, the stakes – and our willingness to sacrifice – should be much higher.
We also need to be willing to make the sacrifice without having anyone acknowledge it. Expecting (or even worse asking) our children to appreciate our sacrifice will simply undermine any relationship. It’s human nature to want praise and gratitude, but we need to resist that temptation. We are the adults, and commitments to children are always one-way. We make sacrifices for our children not because we expect them to appreciate us, but because it is what they need us to do.
As with all children, they may not recognize our contributions for many years, usually when they have children of their own. But they will see the love and caring that prompt our actions, even if they don’t acknowledge or even realize what it is that they are seeing.
Mentors Let Heroes Make Mistakes
The final characteristic of wise mentors is that they let heroes make mistakes. We have a natural instinct to protect our children. These days, that natural instinct is heightened by social pressure and legal mandates to the point that we sometimes harm our children by protecting them too much. Wise mentors, however, let heroes make, and learn from, mistakes. Yoda in Star Wars has the power to prevent Luke from leaving to try to help his friends, but he lets him go. In all of the King Arthur stories, Merlin advises Arthur, but he does not protect him from his mistakes.
Stepping back and letting our children make mistakes is hard to do, but it is essential to their emotional growth. Of course, we always have to be concerned about safety, and we should never let children risk anything truly dangerous. The difficulty is finding that dividing line between truly dangerous and somewhat risky. I always ask myself, “What is the worst that is likely to happen?”
The key is likely. If we allow a young child to wander along a busy highway, he or she is likely to get hit by a car. If we allow an inexperienced teenager to drive a car, he or she is likely to have an accident. A teenager who has driven a lot of miles with adult supervision, however, is much less likely to wreck the car. We need to prepare our children to face the risks and learn how to lessen them. If we continually protect our children, they will never learn those skills.
Like all good mentors, we must recognize that we will not always be around to take care of our children. Sooner or (we hope much) later, they will have to navigate the world without us. Just as the fellowship had to continue its quest after Gandalf fell, our children will need to continue their story without us. The best way we can prepare them is to let them make their mistakes while we are still available to help them put the pieces back together.
Creating positive relationships with our children requires us to develop a bond of love and trust. Children don’t know much about how to create or nurture relationships. We will have to do the heavy lifting and model the behavior. With a little luck and a lot of perseverance, we can become mentors instead of villains in their stories.