Uncle Iroh’s Lessons for Foster Parents

In the early- to mid-2000s, there was a delightful fantasy adventure show on Nickelodeon called Avatar: The Last Airbender. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s the story of a boy named Aang, the Avatar, who is basically the chosen one to save the world from the conquering Fire Nation.

While the show is technically for kids, it seems to have had widespread appeal for all ages. Recently, I’ve been rewatching it with my wife, and occasionally my son when he’s not playing Xbox. During this second excursion into Avatar, I’ve found myself drawn to a character that I didn’t pay particular attention to the first time.

This character is named Iroh. He is the uncle of an irascible boy named Zuko, who is the son of the ruler of the Fire Nation and tasked with finding the Avatar. Iroh takes Zuko under his wing after Zuko’s father exiles him from the Fire Nation, mentoring the angry and aggressive teenager as best he can.

While he’s a fictional character in a kid’s show, Iroh is actually a fantastic paragon for foster/adoptive dads. In fact, Iroh is basically a foster dad himself, as he is pretty much raising his teenage nephew as if the boy were his son, a fact that Iroh points out himself in the show. Not only that, but Iroh consistently models tactics and speaks wisdom that both challenge and encourage me as I raise my own Zuko (seriously, the similarities between Iroh’s nephew Zuko and my fourteen-year-old adopted son are striking).

Today I’m going to expound on a few lessons I think everyone–but especially foster/adoptive parents–can learn from Uncle Iroh. It’s okay if you haven’t seen Avatar (although it’d be a great show to watch with your kids), because the concepts will still apply.

Maintain your sense of humor.

One of the most attractive aspects of Iroh’s personality is his sense of humor. The man is capable of finding something to belly laugh at in practically every situation. Often, that which he laughs at is himself, even when Zuko or someone else makes some sort of cutting remark toward him. He doesn’t become defensive or vindictive; he merely recognizes the humor and genuinely enjoys it. In so doing, any power that the other character had attempted to exert over him is extinguished.

I don’t know about you, but I get a lot of verbal attacks thrown my way by my son. Sometimes they’re in jest and sometimes they’re more malicious; however, regardless of their intent, my first instinct is to react negatively, which rarely if ever helps the situation. While some verbal assaults from our kids may need to be handled more seriously, I would say most of them can simply be laughed off. When I do this, I feel more in control of myself and our afternoon typically goes better.

Change your perspective.

“If you look for the light, you can often find it. But if you look for the dark, that is all you’ll ever see.” This Iroh quote (which, yes, technically was spoken in the sequel series called The Legend of Korra) is an important reminder that there is a great deal to be grateful for, even in the midst of very difficult times. Even on the worst days, most people could easily fill a sheet of paper with things to celebrate, from running water to functioning legs. It’s all a matter of perspective.

I’m raising a difficult child, and you might be too. If that’s the case, it’s really easy to pay attention to all of the darkness: the trauma, the tantrums, the power struggles, the broken windows and chairs and tables, the sheer exhaustion from constantly trying to solve problems so we can survive until the next day and do it all over again. Like Iroh says, if that’s all we’re looking for, that’s all we’ll see. We won’t notice the plethora of good things, both in our child and in our situation, and when we don’t notice and rejoice in the good things, we find ourselves feeling miserable.

Embrace your life as it is right now.

At one point during season two (mild spoiler alert upcoming), Zuko and Iroh are forced to take a break from their hunt for the Avatar and settle down as refugees in a foreign city. Iroh pursues his dream of starting his own tea shop, while Zuko–always brooding and simmering–refuses to do anything but feel sorry for himself, telling his uncle that he wants to get back to searching for the Avatar and doesn’t want to make a life for himself in the new city. To this, Iroh responds, “Life happens wherever you are, whether you make it or not.”

That’s good advice, but tough to swallow. I often find myself wishing for things to be different, or for my son to be older and more mature and independent. But in spending all that time wishing for some future day, I’m letting my life pass me by. The fact of the matter is, even when that future day comes, there will still be plenty to worry about then too. Odds are there won’t come a time when life is completely perfect and stress-free, so it’s a complete waste of time to pine for something that is unrealistic. Instead, I can embrace my current reality and focus my energy on doing what I can do right now to help my son become more mature and independent.

Every second that passes by and every breath you take is your life. It may not be ideal, but no one ever promised it would be. Embrace your life as it is right now, control what you can, and accept what you can’t.

Be strong and hold on to hope.

Let me be clear that accepting your current life circumstances as they are right now doesn’t mean you just abandon any notion of things getting better. While things will likely never be perfect, they can certainly improve. We have a lot of power to help things improve, but we cannot do much if we do not have faith that situations can get better.

At one point in the show, when Zuko is at his lowest, Iroh tells him, “You must never give into despair. Allow yourself to slip down that road, and you surrender to your lowest instincts. In the darkest times, hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner strength.”

The idea of hope being something you give yourself is inspiring, but also a little daunting. However, I don’t think that hope is something you have to generate yourself so much as it is something you have to become aware of yourself.

Circumstances may be though with your child right now. Maybe they’re making some bad decisions. Maybe they’re having a difficult time in school. Maybe they’re dealing with some sort of medical issue. Don’t surrender to despair. Maintain awareness of the many good things (I promise they’re there) and hold onto hope for the future. This will give you the inner strength needed to do what needs to be done.

Surround yourself with others who support you.

Iroh says, “While it is always best to believe in oneself, a little help from others can be a great blessing.” In my experience, foster care and adoption is an arduous journey that should not be taken alone. I frequently comment that if it were not for the support of family and friends, there’s no way my wife and I would have been able to continue in this.

You need people around you who understand what you’re doing and support you in it. For me, it’s fellow foster/adoptive parents and friends who, while not foster/adoptive parents, are willing to listen to my experiences and support me unconditionally. Surround yourself with these people. Join a support group. If there isn’t one in your area, start one (another project I’m working on). If this isn’t possible, join a foster care/adoption Facebook group. Whatever you do, don’t go at this alone.

Make mistakes and learn from them.

If you’ve been a parent for more than five-and-a-half seconds, you’ve indubitably made a parenting mistake. While it can be hard to admit our own mistakes and demoralizing to realize that we’ve messed up with the kids we love so damn much, we know that making mistakes is one of the best ways to learn. Iroh echoes this: “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again. Only this time, more wisely.”

AdoptUSKids reminds us that you don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent. Thank goodness, because I screw stuff up with my son all the time. The reality is that you’re going to make parenting mistakes, so instead of beating yourself up over them, examine them and figure out what you can learn for next time. And when you mess up with your kids, take ownership of that and apologize. Set the example for them so they can see how they should handle things when they too inevitably make their mistakes.

Guide your child, but recognize that they need to make their own path.

Throughout the Avatar series, Zuko could be described as a bad decision machine. He’s constantly making choices that are detrimental to himself and others. Iroh is there by his side through all of it, offering his wisdom and guidance, which Zuko often shirks in the moment. Iroh freely admits to Zuko that it is Zuko who must determine his own destiny, and Iroh gives Zuko this freedom even when it pains him. SPOILER ALERT: In the end, after making plenty of his own mistakes, Zuko comes to realize the value of Iroh’s wisdom through the years and makes sweeping changes in his life.

Recently, I’ve written quite a bit about how we cannot control our children, especially as they become teenagers and young adults. It is up to them to determine their own path in life, to make their own mistakes, and to grow into the people they want to become. We can and should offer our guidance and love through all of it, but we also need to recognize our tendency to squelch their personal autonomy. As uncomfortable as it may feel, our kids’ lives are their lives, and we can’t force them to live according to our values.

Continue to believe in your child.

Even when pretty much everyone (including the viewers) give up on Zuko, Iroh never does. He stands by his nephew through good times and hard times, and even when Zuko is making horrible decisions. Iroh believes in the beautiful in Zuko, although all Zuko seems to show is the ugly. Ultimately, it is this resolute belief in Zuko that helps Zuko come to understand himself and make new, better decisions.

We may not be able to control our children or force them to do what we want, but we can still have tremendous influence in their lives. However, I don’t know how much positive influence we can really have if we don’t believe in our children. It’s imperative to believe that our children are good, that our children are loveable, that our children are doing the best they can with the brains they have, that our children need us, that our children have a future ahead of them that will not be like the present.

As I write this, I’m exhausted, shell-shocked, and angry over a particularly nasty long distance knockdown-dragout I just had with my fourteen-year-old adopted son. It’s hard to believe in him right now. I don’t really even want to try. But deep down I know that he doesn’t need the grudge I want to hold. He doesn’t need the lecture I keep replaying in my mind. What he needs is for his dad to continue to believe in him, even in the midst of the ugly. I’m struggling to get there right now, but I promise to keep working at it if you will too.

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