Reflections on Mentorship (with a Little Help from Harry Potter)
When I was young, I benefited from the encouragement of some really wonderful mentors. They helped me see possibilities that I didn’t know were there. They were the models I emulated as I tried to figure out who I wanted to be.
They were also human beings with their own prejudices and weak points, just like anyone. Looking back, I can see that in my eagerness to please my mentors, I often forgot that they might not know everything, or that their advice might not be a perfect fit for me.
As my kids hit their tween and teen years, I find myself thinking a lot about how to help them get the most out of working with the mentors in their lives. How can I help them sift through mentors’ advice to find what’s relevant to them? How can I help them remember that mentors make mistakes and shouldn’t be treated as infallible oracles?
I mentioned my train of thought to a friend, and he mused that the Harry Potter series offers great examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to mentors.
I loved the idea of exploring mentoring through the lens of Harry Potter, so I came up with a few Potter-infused principles of mentorship that I hope I can pass on to my kids:
- Good mentors admit their own biases and areas of ignorance. I want to encourage my kids to be skeptical of authority figures who offer up blanket advice and who assume that their advice will always apply to everyone. Good mentors will hedge their advice with phrases like “This is what worked for me” and admit their mistakes and the things they don’t know or understand. The best mentors (think Albus Dumbledore and Remus Lupin) have a sense of humor about themselves. They’re open to the possibility that they might not know everything and are willing to listen to a young person’s ideas and approaches, too.
- Good mentors ask the people they’re mentoring about their goals, hopes, and dreams and help their mentees to work toward those goals. Harry’s career counseling session with Minerva McGonagall in Order of the Phoenix is a good example. McGonagall took Harry seriously when he said he wanted to be an Auror, and she told him exactly what classes and grades he’d need in order to accomplish that goal. She saw him as someone worthy and able to do what he set out to do and offered him the tools he needed to get where he wanted to go. Of course, it worked in Harry’s favor that McGonagall was trying to score a point off Dolores Umbridge—yep, mentors are human, all right.
- Good mentors understand that their mentees aren’t simply younger versions of themselves. Remember Sirius Black and the way he sometimes confused Harry with himself and Harry’s father when they were teens? These kinds of mentors make the mistake of assuming that their mentees want exactly the same things that the mentor wanted at that age—or they assume that their vision of a young person is the only or best option for that young person without really seeing the young person for the separate, unique person they are. I hope my children will know it’s OK to speak up about what they hope to accomplish and to say no to serving as a mentor’s mini-me.
- Good mentors encourage their mentees to dream big dreams, but they also help them set realistic, do-able goals along the way. Ideally, mentors will encourage kids to shoot for amazing things, but they’ll also help lay out small, specific steps young people can take to move toward those goals. I’m thinking, for instance, of the careful, gradual way Dumbledore shared information with Harry about Voldemort’s horcruxes, letting Harry process things bit by bit rather than overwhelming Harry with too much information at once. Another example of the kind of mentoring I’m thinking of is the gentle, encouraging way that Remus Lupin helped Harry master summoning a patronus over several sessions. What a contrast to the way Severus Snape threw Harry into learning the difficult, scary work of occlumency without offering the slightest hint of kindness or emotional support! I want my kids to know that if they feel confused, overwhelmed, or stymied by advice their mentors give them, that it’s all right to ask for help breaking down big goals into smaller components, and that there’s no shame in asking for more directions along the way.
- Good mentors don’t play favorites or encourage cliques—or if they do, we mentees don’t have to let it distract us from our own intentions and purpose. We’ve probably all encountered the Horace Slughorns of the mentoring world at some point—the teachers, coaches, or bosses who cultivate an in-crowd of followers. If you’ve been invited to be part of an in-crowd, you know it can be flattering, but that it can also inhibit your ability to think clearly about what you really want and who you want to be apart from the group. On the other hand, if you’re not part of the in-crowd surrounding a coveted mentor, it can make you doubt your abilities and feel like a loser. I want my kids to be on the alert for either situation and to know that sadly, sometimes mentors use kids to feed their own egos. If my kids ever happen to be among the chosen few, I want to encourage them to resist the lures of an in-crowd and work toward staying true to themselves. And if they’re not tapped for the inner circle, I hope they’ll recognize that that doesn’t mean they’re destined for failure.
- Mentors aren’t always what they seem. In the fourth book of the Harry Potter series, Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Mad-Eye Moody isn’t the person he appears to be, to put it mildly. I want my kids to know that it’s OK to trust their intuitions if they’re getting bad vibes from an authority figure. Often, really manipulative authority figures will do their best to turn kids’ intuitions against them; I want my kids to follow their gut when they sense that an authority figure may not have their best interests at heart or is not being honest about their intentions.
- Last but not least, good mentors deserve our gratitude and appreciation. I think as a young person, I didn’t always fully appreciate the extra time and attention that mentors were giving me (I’m still working on making sure I properly acknowledge my mentors’ kindness now that I’m an adult). As a kid, I didn’t realize just how busy adults were and what a gift it was when they were willing to offer me something extra to help me grow. I try to encourage my kids to show appreciation for their mentors, whether it’s writing a note after a teacher has been especially helpful or just saying, “Thanks! That was a great class!” as they walk out the door. I’m not asking them to name their kids after their most admired mentors the way Harry and Ginny do in Deathly Hallows, but I do want them to let their mentors know that their mentoring efforts mean something.
We adults talk a lot about the value of mentors, but I don’t think we coach kids as much as we should on the art of being coached. Equipped with this kind of knowledge, hopefully they’ll be better prepared to survive the Slughorns and Snapes of this world and to make the most of the Lupins and Dumbledores.