Children need mentors

Two parents cannot possibly be all things to their children, all the time. As parents we do our best, but fortunately there is always a rich supply of other examples to fill in the gaps. Where my husband and I were dodgy role models in the world of prudent financial management, there was a grandfather and a few uncles to show a better way. ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. So the saying goes, and there is beauty in the truth of this.

‘Your children are not your children’, says Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet, ‘they are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.’ Strong words, and easier said than done when your child embarrasses you in public, or is heartbroken, or when they achieve great things. The guidance of these wise words is important though, since in our intense attachment to our children we can lose perspective, become over-involved, and in the process, disempower them.

Working with teenage girls I noted how often problems were presented that had not been discussed with parents. I asked the girls what made it difficult to discuss these issues with their parents, and it seemed to boil down to three main barriers to communication:

‘I don’t want to upset them’. There is kindness and consideration operating here, but more often it is because the child knows that when the parents also become upset, the problem itself multiplies.

‘My Mom, or Dad, always has to DO something’. In other words, we take over, which is disempowering and often also embarrassing.

‘I just KNOW what they will say.’ We become predictable, the curse of familiarity. This makes it difficult to find novel solutions to problems.

Perhaps an easier approach to take would be ‘All children are your children’. Since being an adult implies being responsible – as in ‘able to respond’ – any child who comes into our orbit is, for that time, our child.

I once asked a group of parents if they could recall a moment from their childhood when an adult, any adult, responded to them in a way they never forgot. It did not take long for memories from decades ago to surface, and one I recall was particularly touching. A woman remembered being in a crowded doctor’s waiting room with her mother and siblings, one of whom needed to see the doctor. Another woman in the waiting room put her on her knee and taught her how to knit. One can just imagine the scene, a harassed mother with a sick child and her other children restless in the confined space, and the simple response of another woman coming to the rescue, leaving an impression for life on that one child.

More is learnt from what we do than what we say. A beautiful Hasidic story tells of a disciple who goes to his teacher not to hear what he has to say, but to carefully watch how he ties his shoelaces.

Children choose their own mentors. We may choose schools for them, and select godparents, but in the realm of mentoring they are free to choose, and their choices may surprise and enlighten us. I once asked my children who they admired, and was surprised when one who appeared only interested in sport named a quiet saintly man, a craftsman by profession. It is a lovely and sobering thought that you may be a mentor to some child and not even know it.

‘The best way of training the young is to train yourself at the same time; not to admonish them, but to be always carrying out your own admonitions in practice.’


Published in: on February 15, 2010 at 10:46 am  Comments (1)