Re-Parenting in Fiction

“It takes a village to raise a child.” 

When Hillary Clinton says this, it means your children actually belong to the State, and the State has a right to intervene if they don’t think you’re doing it right (which, trust me, you’re not).  When normal people say it, it means only that in order to grow into healthy, functional adults, kids need more than just a mom and a dad.  They need a whole community around them.

In the past, I’ve blogged about how living in a small, isolated community consisting mostly of extended family limits the options when a family must deal with abuse.   That is still true.  But it’s also true that living in a close-knit community can provide some benefits for children whose own parents are lacking in some way.  They can receive re-parenting, or supplemental parenting, from aunts, uncles, grandparents, older cousins, and others.

Re-parenting in Harry Potter

Re-parenting occurs in Harry Potter.  Harry, as we all know, does not have a proper family and lives as the unloved stepchild of his aunt and uncle.  When he meets his best friend, Ron Weasley, he is introduced to Ron’s family.

From Ron’s point of view, the Weasley family is not all that great a place to be.  It’s a large family, Ron is the youngest of many brothers, and he often feels overlooked.  Also, the Weasleys are poor, not in the sense of starving but in the sense of wearing hand-me-downs and being subject to taunting from snobbier wizards.

From Harry’s point of view, Ron’s family is paradise.  It’s an intact family with a loving father and mother.  Mrs. Weasley is a great cook, and Harry’s wizarding gifts are accepted as a normal part of life instead of being hated, feared, and suppressed.  Even the large number of siblings makes the household a fun place to be.  Harry stays with Weasleys many times and eventually ends up marrying into their family.

Imperfect Parenting and Re-parenting

Over the course of the series, Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, also provides a father figure to Harry.  However, it takes Harry some time to realize that this is happening because he has been conditioned to mistrust authority figures. 

Harry is also re-parented by his father’s childhood friend Sirius Black.  This brings out the point that all of us need re-parenting from a variety of people, not just one person or one family.  Neither Dumbledore nor Black is perfect (Mr. Weasley might be perfect though!), but between the three of them they give Harry a decent composite father figure.  That’s why we say “it takes a village,” not “it takes one perfect person other than your parents.”   

Ironically, sometimes someone who is a flawed parent themselves can be an ideal supplemental parent.  This is true of Dumbledore, who is a wonderful mentor to Harry even though he let his own family down in significant ways.  We also see it in how Ron experiences his family as a place of being second-best, whereas Harry has a great experience in the same family.  In some ways it’s easier to be a good parent to your child’s friends than to your own child. Thus, the need for re-parenting is not necessarily proof that our own parents failed us completely or were more than usually flawed. It takes a village is an expression that, properly understood, simply takes into account the fact that everyone is badly flawed. It’s like the interpersonal version of the need for checks and balances in government.

Re-parenting in Voyage of the Dawn Treader

In C.S. Lewis’s classic sea story, Eustace Clarence Scrubb has parents who are neither neglectful nor directly abusive, but they have raised him with an inadequate set of values that is rapidly forming him into a sluggard, a coward, and a snob.  Eustace, when he is whisked into Narnia, is re-parented not by any one adult per se but by the total experience of being in Narnia.  And ultimately, of course, by Aslan Himself. 

In Eustace’s case, getting re-parented is painful.  At every turn, he is asked to work harder, put up with more hardship, and complain less than ever in his life before. Then things get really intense when he turns into a dragon and, to cure him, Aslan literally rips away his dragon skin.  Eustace’s experience shows that re-parenting is not just about lots of love, hugs, and healing emotional wounds (though of course it can include that).  It’s also a process of re-training, being challenged and held to higher standards.  We see this in Dumbledore’s relationship with Harry in the later Harry Potter books, where Dumbledore starts giving Harry difficult assignments and holding him accountable whenever he doesn’t get on them.

Re-parenting in The Strange Land

Ikash, the teenaged protagonist of my novel The Strange Land, has an abusive father and a mother who because of her circumstances is barely functional.   Early in the book, before Ikash ever notices his crush, he “falls in love” with her parents, who have an imperfect but warm and loving home.  They demonstrate to him that there is another way to have a marriage besides the one his mother and father have.  It takes a village.

His crush’s father doesn’t immediately accept Ikash, seeing him for the at-risk teen that he is and a potential danger to his daughters.  Ikash is re-trained and challenged when he sees that Hur does not trust him, and is motivated to become worthy of that trust.  The relationship grows through a series of tragedies and setbacks, and by the end of the book, the way those two re-parent him is really a sight to see.

Ikash also finds father figures in his paternal uncle and in his older cousin Ki-Ki.  In both cases, it takes him some time to trust them because of his previous bad experiences with authority.  I didn’t consciously copy this dynamic from Harry Potter.  It’s just a natural dynamic that often repeats itself because of human psychology being what it is.

“Found Families” versus Re-parenting

Once or twice while reading book blogs, I have seen the term “found families.”  I take this to mean stories where a character is orphaned or rejected for whatever reason and goes on to find or create a “family” for themselves from friends they meet along the way. 

Clearly this is related to what I’ve been saying about re-parenting.  I am not sure that it’s exactly the same thing because I don’t know the details of what people mean when they say a “found family.”  My sense is that found families might more often consist of peers, whereas when I say re-parenting I am thinking more of a character being brought under the wing of a mentor (or, ideally, a couple) who are older and wiser.  Also, re-parenting can happen without the characters really being considered a family, as in the case of Eustace.

In the comments, please tell me what you know about the term “found families” and also what you love and/or hate about found families and re-parenting in fiction.