This post is the last (for now) in a series about how we can be the mentor in our blended families’ stories rather than the evil stepparent.   If we can start displaying some of these characteristics, we will have a better shot at developing a good relationship with our non-biological children.

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.

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Debbie Ausburn

I make my living as a lawyer, but what I do is take care of other people’s children.