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The "Master" Parent

Today's blog is a bit of a tangent.  Since so much of this blog has touched on parenting I wanted to point you all to someone who I think got it right as a parent.  Watch him, study him, learn from him.  He's the master.  His name is Uncle Iroh from the Avatar cartoon series.  He is not the kind of character you would think is the master parent but if you watch the cartoon all the way through some profound themes emerge I want to highlight.  A heads up:  if you haven't watched the cartoon this might be a spoiler, proceed with caution, or better yet go watch it!

Uncle Iroh is the Uncle of Zuko who is a troubled teenager who once believed his Father (who is the Fire Lord) would kill him when he as a young boy.  This theme is present throughout and I think that this memory is the basic fear mechanism, based on a lie, that drives Zuko.  With this very basic primal memory taking root Zuko's whole life becomes a self fullfilled prophecy of sorts.  At each stage his actions are directed by fear and low self worth, and this ironically leads to a confrontation with his greatest fear, his own Father, who burns his face permanently in a duel and banishes him until he can "prove" himself.  The story proceeds with Zuko searching the ends of the earth for the Avatar (which is a metaphor for him searching for something he can never find on his own, his own Salvation, Peace, and Truth about himself).  Zuko is a hopeless, tragic, (and talented) conflicted character and watching him "act" is painful and pathetic because he is not free.  Amazingly he is guided beautifully by his bizarre Uncle, the "master" parent, who never leaves his side.  Uncle Iroh is not really "qualified" to be a Father figure to Zuko.  He drives Zuko nuts, he puts a spin on every situation that matters to Zuko in his own blubbering wise way, and he does his own thing (which also drives Zuko nuts).  How is he the master parent?
A complex thread emerges as the story is told that Uncle Iroh has experienced loss so profound that it breaks your heart.  He is partially responsible for his own son's death.  He was once a great general and his son died on the front lines of a war he waged.  The story reveals that he adopts Zuko, not in a legal way, but quite literally into his heart.  It is a rare treat that the creators of Avatar do not "milk" this dynamic in a sentimental way, but rather "show" this adoption in the story itself.  There are real trials, real successes, real conflicts, but what remains solid and unshaking is that Uncle Iroh never falters in his love for Zuko, and through this adoption, which is perfectly free, there are no strings attached.  It is quite simply perfect.  It is not "perfect" in the worldly sense, because Uncle Iroh is far from perfect, but perfect for Zuko (even though he doesn't realize it).  This is the delicate hinge that makes Uncle Iroh the master parent.  He is the boys conscience, his motivator, his "other self", the "self" he is searching the ends of the earth for but cannot find.  How does Iroh do it?
First, nothing really aggrivates Uncle Iroh, especailly strong emotions that are the product of the boys passions.  He understands the passions but he doesn't "listen" to the emotions except to affirm that they are there.  In a wonderful scene he tells Zuko that in order for his anger to go away he has to get rid of shame.  He says the opposite of shame is not pride (like most people think) but humility.
Second, Uncle Iroh recognizes that he cannot "rush in" and save the boy.  In the same manner he cannot reverse his own son's death, he cannot "reform" Zuko.  Perhaps he had to learn this in the depths of his own tragic loss.  Subsequently, the space he gives Zuko is just enough.  His love is not distant but it isn't stiffling either.  It waits and listens, and allows all kinds of feelings in the boy to pass before he acts.
The message to parents is perfect...find the heart of adoption that Uncle Iroh finds.  I would argue that this is impossible to do because we are so biologically tied to our children that so much gets in the way.  What is required is a lesson in cultivating the heart for that very act.  Where is that learned?  It is found in the story of the Gospels.  It is the divine image of how God brings back the world to Himself, which I believe is the very same heart of adoption that is free and perfect with no strings attached.  Yet in my sinfullness I won't accept it because I am blinded by passions, a lot like Zuko :).
Seriously though, go watch Avatar, the original cartoon and discover the master parent for yourself. Peace.


  1. Providentially, my kids got hooked on Avatar recently, and I couldn't help but get hooked myself. We just recently watched Tales of Ba Sing Se again, and I just noticed something incredible. That episode ends with him singing a heartbreaking lament for the lost soldier as he prays before a portrait of his son, on his son's birthday. But earlier in that episode, he encounters a little boy on the street, a total stranger, and he sings this same song, confidently, and joyfully, and the boy stops crying, smiles and playfully tugs on Uncle's beard. Compassion and love emerge from the crucible of heartache. Yep, uncle IS the Master parent.

  2. Avatar is one of our favorite shows. My husband bought me a giant 45inch stuffed Appa the other day as a surprise. Uncle Iroh was always our favorite character. We spent a few weeks watching all the seasons back to back, and got a little depressed when it was over as the characters were so well developed and thoughtful. It's interesting that a lot of tv shows nowadays don't often show a strong parent. I always love the scene when Zuko goes to apologize to his Uncle, and when Iroh wakes up he just hugs and has already forgiven him.

  3. Fabulous post.
    We are hooked on Leo. Hooked on Avatar. May we all learn from the Master Parent!

  4. Awesome! Thanks for the reminder of what a surprising, amazing show Avatar is. You're right - Uncle is such a great example of parenting with patience and love. I will keep his example in mind much more often, which also will help to keep a smile on my face!

  5. I have never seen Avatar cartoon,but you did such a great job at advertizing it,that I can't wait to see it.Our love towards our children is often blinded,selfish and very self serving. This "Perfect love without strings attached,"that Uncle Iroh had for Zuco is definately something every parent should strive for.
    By the way, Leo's new picture on the blog is absolutely irresistable.I find myself just staring into his deep luminous eyes for a very ,very long time.No wonder it is said that the eyes are like a mirror into ones soul.
    Love you all.

  6. Hi. My husband and I attend Saint Gregory's in Wappinger's Falls, NY. I remember quite vividly sometime last spring sitting in church and watching your little daughter. Then I remember seeing you as the mother, pregnant. I remember feeling a deep and beautiful presence of the Madonna. It was very moving. Now as I read your writings about parenthood and little Leo, I know my feeling back then was genuine. Mary, too, had a very unusual son, different from absolutely everyone else, and she could not control, or protect him from his destiny, but yield herself to it, as it became hers, too. Your journey as parents, as a family, is a huge challenge to trust his Leo's destiny and your own. What we all as parents must do, each in our own hearts, especially in our most frightening and difficult times. Your honesty and commitment to such growth continues to inspire and encourage me as my grown children struggle in difficult and painful ways. Thank you for sharing so openly your journey. Erika Dobrzynsky


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