Are You More Like Snape, or Dumbledore?


At one time or another, every parent feels dissatisfied with their child’s motivation. We may feel that a child’s motivation is misplaced when they practice cartwheels after we’ve asked them to get dressed for a family outing. We may feel their motivation is nonexistent when they watch television while that school project waits unfinished.

We try different tactics to correct course, with varying results. Sometimes we end up regretting the tactics we use. Today we will turn to an unlikely—but fun—place for guidance and parenting inspiration:  the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling.

For those unfamiliar with the books (where have you been?), they tell the story of a boy wizard whose life becomes the prime target for the evil and powerful Lord Voldemort. Much of the story unfolds within the confines of a wizarding school. Throughout that time, Harry has the unpleasant experience of being bullied by one of his instructors, Professor Snape. Harry also has the good fortune to be under the protections of the benevolent headmaster, Professor Dumbledore.

The two professors have very different types of interactions with Harry. At times, each man has occasion to motivate the boy for a specific task. The contrast between the two sets of interpersonal dynamics is especially stark in these circumstances.

In Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, Snape was assigned by Dumbledore the task of teaching Harry occlumency. Occlumency is the art of blocking one’s mind off from mind-readers. This was an urgent task, as there were signs that Lord Voldemort was beginning to penetrate Harry’s mind.

Snape showed no interest in spending time with Harry at all, and made it clear that he was loathe to tutor Harry. Snape showed his disdain by giving forceful yet vague directives, ordering the boy simply to focus and to clear his mind. Snape regularly showed impatience with Harry’s lack of progress, issuing tersely-worded criticisms punctuated with exasperated facial expressions.

Harry recognized the importance of learning occlumency. Still, he was never motivated to do so. He didn’t do much in the way of practice, beside attending the sessions with Snape. When Snape cancelled the lessons due to Harry’s behavior, Harry was not motivated to find any other way to learn the skill.

Harry never mastered the art of occlumency. The whole attempt was a fiasco, as even admitted by Dumbledore.

The following book, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, featured Dumbledore employing Harry for the critical task of retrieving a memory from a reticent Professor Slughorn. This memory was to be a critical piece of information in learning how to defeat Lord Voldemort. Harry recognized the importance of this task, but had other things on his mind, as schoolboys often do. He simply wasn’t motivated.

Dumbledore may have been frustrated by Harry’s weak attempts at the task. Yet he did not show his frustration. He remained calm, and spoke with a gentle tone. Further, he was never judgmental regarding Harry. Dumbledore was simply present, understanding, and inquisitive.  

In one particular progress review, Dumbledore inquired about Harry himself. Specifically, he asked whether Harry had exerted the full force of his capacities upon the task. When Harry relayed how he had been busy helping a friend in need instead, Dumbledore took his perspective. He showed understanding about the importance of helping a friend before restating the expectations that the memory retrieval be given high priority. After securing Harry’s commitment to give the task his full focus, Dumbledore refrained from mentioning Harry’s shortcomings any further.

This was the turning point for Harry’s motivation level. Having the opportunity to view his own performance objectively, in a nonthreatening environment in which his contributions were valued, made the difference.

Dumbledore continued to work with Harry on other aspects related to the task at hand. Dumbledore provided information to Harry, answered questions, and elicited Harry’s opinions. He genuinely valued Harry’s input.

Dumbledore’s actions showed confidence in Harry. He did not tell Harry how to get the memory, just that it needed to be done. He did not micromanage, he did not give directives, and he did not criticize. He allowed Harry to find a way to get it done, which ultimately, Harry did.

You might not be a professor, and your child is probably not a wizard, but you can likely still relate to these exchanges between Harry and the two adults. Here are a few reflection questions that you can use when you find yourself in ‘motivation mode.’


When feeling offended by the child’s lack of focus...

Are you getting louder like Snape, or quieter like Dumbledore?


When feeling frustrated with the child’s lack of progress...

Are you demanding immediate results like Snape, or are you patiently allowing the child to deliver results like Dumbledore?

When feeling disappointed because the child’s approach is not what was expected...

Are you telling the child what to think like Snape, or asking the child what they think like Dumbledore?

Are you telling the child what to do like Snape, or giving the child’s approach a chance, like Dumbledore?

When feeling distressed by the uncertainty of the outcome of coaching sessions...

Are you doubting the value of your time and energy investments like Snape, or do you believe in the abilities of the child, like Dumbledore?

It is not easy to be the kind of parent you want to be. It helps to have some perspective questions to use, to determine whether you are parenting according to your values. If you want to be generally more involved, supportive, and encouraging to your child, these perspective questions might be helpful for you. You can choose a question that resonates with you, and use it to ask yourself about your own behavior.

You don’t have to wait until you are in the moment to do it. Here is a question you can use right now:  Would you rather be more like Snape, or Dumbledore?

How to Cite this Article: Brian Vondruska, “Are You More Like Snape, or Dumbledore?”, The Kind of Parent You Are, accessed [date],