One of the toughest parts of parenting other people’s children is recognizing that we are not the people who are supposed to be there. As I’ve explained before, from a child’s perspective, we are not supposed to be in their lives. They have an almost primal sense that, if the world worked the way it should, they would not know us. Nevertheless, we are in their lives and we have to find our place.
In most cases, we cannot replace their parent. In those cases, they and we have to figure out where we fit in their lives. I believe that the best place for us is as a mentor to our children. My belief stems from the way that humans are hard-wired to think in terms of stories. We are story-telling animals. For thousands of years, we have used stories to teach, learn, and make sense of our reality.
If we think through the stories that we and our children have learned, we see thousands of plots with many different 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. 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 the techniques. Fortunately, it was a joke in our family, but the template is an ancient one.
We have to work to become 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 care about their charges unconditionally. I will talk more in later blog posts about other characteristics, but unconditional love is the foundation of the relationship. No matter how annoying or foolish the heroes in the old stories, the mentors never give up on them.
A final corollary is that we can’t let our children’s reactions to us control how much we care about them. I know that that attitude is easier said that done. I have a less-than-perfect record of meeting that goal, but I believe that it is an important one. Caring about children is always a one-way street; that dynamic is no different in foster or blended families.
One-way does not mean unlimited. All healthy relationships have boundaries. We need not, and should not, enable people who are hurting themselves or others. But within those bounds of safety and self-respect, we have to be willing to sacrifice for our children, whatever they think of us. If we remain steady in our response, we have a much better chance of getting past the rough spots and forging a strong and positive relationship.
Being a good mentor is not easy. But it is a necessary part of our relationship with our foster and bonus children.
How have you been able to place yourself as a mentor in your child’s life? Email me, and I’ll include your thoughts in future blog posts.