One of the hardest parts of raising non-biological children is fitting into their narrative. Humans are story-telling animals. For thousands of years, we have used stories to teach, learn, and make sense of our reality. Our children have done the same thing from their earliest days. They have a narrative of their life, and when we enter it, they have to figure where we fit.
There are thousands of plots for stories with many different types of characters. All stories, however, have at least (1) a hero trying to (2) reach a goal, (3) a villain who tries to interfere, and (4) a wise mentor who helps the hero. Every child is the hero of his or her story. That only leaves two slots for us. We will be either the villain or the mentor in their narrative.
There is a strong temptation for children to cast us as the villain. We start as outsiders. We are the people who, if the world worked as it should, would not be there. For centuries, the outsider has been the villain of stories. When my stepsons were younger, I used to joke with them that I had read all the stepmother manuals. Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel & Gretel – I had learned all of the techniques. Fortunately, it was a joke in our family, but the template is an ancient one.
The place that we want to be with our children is the wise mentor who helps the hero. To figure out how to get to that role in their narrative, we can learn from mentors in famous stories. The most common characteristic that we find is that mentors love and accept their charges unconditionally. No matter how annoying or foolish, the mentor never gives up on the hero.
In the Harry Potter novels, for example, Harry was not a perfect student. Yet, Professor Dumbledore was always caring and available as Harry matured. Similarly, the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings saga (one of my favorites) were far from perfect. Frodo says, “There have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words and have felt that an earthquake or an invasion of dragons might be good for them.” Gandalf had no illusions about hobbits’ weaknesses (“fool of a Took!”), but he was a staunch advocate and friend throughout the saga.
Our children need to feel the same love and acceptance from us. Unconditional acceptance does not mean that we put up with whatever kids throw at us. Boundaries are essential for any healthy relationship. No one doubts, for example, that if Harry had brazenly violated important rules, Dumbledore reluctantly would have expelled him. Cinderella’s fairy godmother made her enchanted evening end at midnight. In Star Wars, Yoda did not stop Luke from leaving in an ill-advised attempt to help his friends. Sometimes we have to enforce boundaries and let our children make their own choices.
The important point, though, is that if they return, we need to accept them with love and understanding. The return of the prodigal son in the Bible may be the most famous example of this dynamic. In Star Wars, when Luke returned, Yoda did not reject him. Mentors know full well that heroes are not perfect and need to learn many life lessons. But they never abandon those willing to do the hard work of growing into strong and wise leaders.
Mentors have many other characteristics that I will explore in my next two posts. For now, though, understand that our children have to believe that we care about them no matter how imperfect. If they do not believe that we have their backs, then nothing else we try to offer will matter.