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What is Family? The Harry Potter Case Study

Posted By Randall Reitz; Kaitlin Leckie, Friday, June 5, 2015


In recent decades few words have become more politicized than "family”.  Some groups would limit a family to a man married to a woman and their naturally born children.  Others would expand the definition beyond any recognition or legal application.  The Harry Potter series written by J. K. Rowling presents an interesting case study on the diverse manifestations and implications of family.

Caveat:  If you’re a muggle who’s never read Harry Potter, you will require magical intervention to understand this blog post and will be frightened by myriad plot spoilers. Read the series and then return to this research.  And, no, watching the movies is wholly insufficient.

Biological Family of Origin

Harry is the only child of James and Lily Potter.  His parents were killed by Tom Riddle (a.k.a. Voldemort) when Harry was still an infant.  Despite this early loss, Harry’s parents play a vital role throughout his life.  

While Harry can track much of his greatness to their courage and smarts, his parents—especially his father—weren’t always good role models for Harry.  Fortunately, the parents seem to have matured by the time they conceived Harry—both of them becoming aurors and founding members of the Order of the Phoenix during the first war with Voldemort.  Like his father, Harry has a mischievous streak and occasionally breaks school rules, such as sneaking around the hallways after bedtime in his invisibility cloak. However, his trouble-making does not cross the line into bullying, as his father’s did. Instead, his behavior toward his peers, muggles, and magical creatures reflects his mother’s compassionate nature. In developing his own identity, Harry balances qualities of both his parents.

Harry’s deceased parents visit him in three different settings, at crucial times in his development and heroics.  In Book 1, during a particularly difficult time when Harry feels alone and questions his place in the world, he is able to see his parents through the Mirror of Erised. He is immediately struck by how closely he resembles his father’s unkempt appearance and how he shares his mother’s emerald eyes.  It is the first-time that Harry feels the loving gaze and unconditional acceptance of family.  He becomes so absorbed in his family’s love that he risks wasting away in front of the mirror.

In Book 4, as Harry duels Voldemort, his wand locks with Voldemort’s and his ethereal parents emerge from Voldemort’s wand (the wand that had killed them) and provide encouragement and counsel to Harry. Similarly, in Book 7 James and Lily emerge from the Resurrection Stone, along with their friends (and Harry’s deceased mentors) Lupin and Sirius.  They provide enlightenment and promise to accompany him as he accepts the fate of his own mortal sacrifice:

"He knew they would not tell him to go, that it would have to be his decision.

‘You’ll stay with me?’

‘Until the very end,’ said James.

‘They won’t be able to see you?’ asked Harry.

‘We are part of you,’ said Sirius. ‘Invisible to anyone else.’

Harry looked at his mother.

‘Stay close to me,’ he said quietly.

 And he set off.”


Adoptive Family

The only family Harry knows in his first eleven years is his maternal aunt, uncle, and cousin, the Dursleys. Though related by blood, Harry is as opposite from this biological family as disengagement is from enmeshment. The Dursleys perpetuate his role of scapegoat and parentified child by forcing him to cook and clean and by berating him whenever possible. Yet, Nature wins out. Harry maintains his innocent character despite being under the roof of the materialistic and tyrannical Dursleys. Although he has an understandable right to be angry at their maltreatment, Harry is kind, appreciative, open-minded, and pure of heart.

While the Dursleys have legal status as Harry’s caretakers, the very first pages of Book 1 foreshadow the characters who will be the adoptive parents of Harry’s heart.  Albus Dumbledore and Minerva McGonagall place Harry at the Dursleys’ doorstep after his parents are murdered.  Their love and commitment are already apparent in their anxiety at leaving Harry in the hands of his narrow-minded, contrary biological family. 

This parental connection develops throughout Harry’s years at Hogwarts, as Dumbledore is the school’s headmaster and McGonagall is head of Harry’s house, Hogwart’s deputy headmistress, and eventually headmistress.  Dumbledore is the wizard whom Harry most admires and the person who pushes Harry to fulfill his destiny as The Boy Who Lived.  As with most children, Harry experiences shock and loss when he discovers that Dumbledore isn’t the perfect parent-figure he had idolized. For her part, McGonagall watches over Harry: correcting him sternly when required but also advocating for him throughout the series.  While Dumbledore and McGonagall are not husband and wife and don’t always agree, they are both committed to raising Harry for greatness and goodness.

Summer visits to the Weasleys’ Burrow are the closest experiences Harry has to a traditional home life.  The Weasley parents love Harry like a son and initiate him to family traditions that the Dursleys had deprived him. 

Quasi Family


Harry benefits from a large community of loved ones who fill family-like roles.  James and Lily chose Sirius Black to be his godfather, a role he fills with deathly seriousness. Harry’s close Hogwarts friends who join him in Dumbledore’s Army are the siblings that Harry never had: Ron, Hermione, Neville, Luna, Fred, George, Cho, and Lee.  Hermione would be upset if we called Dobby Harry's pet, so we'll instead consider him a doting, awkward younger brother. Harry is never able to overcome the family and wizarding lore that creates a wall of acrimony between Snape and him.  However, it is easy to compare Snape to a begrudging step-father who steps in to raise the child of the woman he loves.  Tonks and Lupin are his favorite aunt and uncle; Hagrid is obviously the crazy uncle. 




Family of Creation


When Harry has the chance to create his own home, he intentionally brings together the best aspects of all his v


gnificant family-figures: James Sirius, Albus Severus, and Lily Luna.  He pursues the same career as his parents, and his children continue the Potter/Weasley tradition of attending Hogwarts—although we’re left not knowing if they are sorted into Gryffindor or Slytherin.

How Does This Apply in the Muggle World of Collaborative Family Healthcare?

At this point, our research proffers few answers and far more questions for future studies:

·         Who should we consider family when intervening in integrated care?

·         How can we best assess the positive and negative contributions of family?

·         What supports and resources should we draw on in supporting patients and families?

·         How can we incorporate family beliefs—both magical and spiritual—regarding the influence of family in this life and beyond?


Randall Reitz, PhD is the Director of Behavioral Sciences at St Mary’s Family Medicine Residency and Medical Family Therapy Fellowship.  He has read the entire series 3 times and has blogged on Harry Potter previously.  Like Hermione, his patronus is an otter.


  Kaitlin Leckie, PhD is the Director of Behavioral Health Education at Southern Colorado Family Medicine Residency. She has been studying/appreciating Harry Potter for decades and recently took a pilgrimage to the Mecca of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando. Her Patronus is an ocelot. 


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