For a few years before we had any children, my wife and I took care of her niece who was a teenager at the time. She had a pretty rough start to life comparatively to my own. Her parents divorced when she was young but still old enough to remember thinking it was her fault. Her mom would constantly bad-mouth her father while in her presence. To make matters worse, an uncle she adored died nearly around the same time as the divorce was occurring.
When I first met her though, she was silly and always smiling. She loves sports and excelled playing soccer very competitively. She and I had an instant friendship because of our mutual poking fun at each other. I rarely saw her though, as she lived on the other side of the country and would only occasionally visit during the summer.
One year, her mom decided that she wanted to move from Toronto to Vancouver, where we lived, mostly for her own reasons, but one of which was to keep her daughter away from her ex-husband. So things were put into motion and my niece was to come to Vancouver ahead of her mom to start the school year in the fall. I was delighted to have her around for a few months while her mom got things sorted with the move and I could play fun-uncle-in-law.
But as things turn out, her mom's career once again took priority and my niece was left on her own under our care. This wasn't an unusual thing for her while living in Toronto as her mom would often leave her with relatives while she was out either working or out having fun with friends. My wife and I accepted the "challenge" of caring for our niece, but it really wasn't a lot of work and in fact it was really a lot of fun. We dealt with typical teenage stuff: boyfriends, laziness, ensuring school-work was being completed, etc. While all this was happening though, we told her one simple thing, our only rule: never lie to us. She kept that promise.
Surprisingly she was open with my wife and myself on a wide range of issues she would have. She came and talked to us like a mature adult, even though she really was too young to exhibit these traits. We saw so much potential with her. Each issue that was brought up, we would talk about it together. There were often tears, but I made sure to put a bit of silliness in there to help cheer up and frowns on her face. We felt like a tight-knit family.
This all would be disrupted however when her mom would come to town and check-in. I can't say it didn't annoy me. In fact, it frustrated me beyond belief. My wife and I felt like we made so much progress with this young woman we loved so much, but then once her mom appeared, everything reverted back to day one. Fights and arguments between mother and daughter happened daily and all we could do is watch this happen in our own home. It still wrenches my heart to think about these memories.
So when I had some time alone with my niece, we would talk about how she was feeling. She would tell me how broken she felt and how she just felt like dying. She asked me why her mom is like this. I only had one justification: adults are just grown-up children. You can't make someone mature, they have to grow and learn that on their own and some of us just don't really learn maturity.
I see this all the time. In myself, my wife, friends and my own parents. Adults really are as clueless as children at times, and like being a parent, we're all just trying to figure things out. But to garner any respect from others is to learn to be a mature adult, but don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there's no place for silliness.
So now my niece is grown up adult, and even though that makes me feel a tad old, having her around gave me my first taste of being a parent. Now that I'm raising three small kids, all of that valuable experience I gained years ago comes into play every day. And one day, I'll tell my kids when I make a mistake that I'm sorry and I'm just a grown up kid trying to figure things out too.