As parents, we so often take for granted the difference that an adult role model or mentor really makes in the life of a child. For most of us, we are either raising our children together with our spouse under one roof or as part of a larger blended family. Many of us have extended family as well with aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins either down the street or just a phone call away. Unfortunately, for a large part of our society, this is not the case. Take a walk through the inner-city streets, the projects or even just the low-income neighborhoods present in every city and state, and look around. There you will see young children through young adults who are trying to make it in this world virtually all alone. Whether it is kids living in foster care, living with an elderly grandparent, or living with an overtired, overworked single mom, there are millions of children in need of some quality adult attention. An invaluable resource for these children is a mentor. If you or someone you know wants to make a difference in the life of a child or teen, consider becoming a volunteer mentor.
What is a Mentor?
A mentor is a relationship whereby a more experienced person helps to guide, direct and encourage a less experienced or less knowledgeable person in a certain area. Mentors are not only for children, but are frequently implemented in collegiate programs, internships and even in the corporate world. A quality mentor can really make a difference in the life of his or her mentee using encouragement and constructive criticism to help the mentee grow and develop accordingly.
In terms of mentoring children, an engaged mentor can make a world of difference. Mentors for kids often fulfill a variety of roles, from being a confidant to a reading tutor, a coach to someone who helps with college applications; there are so many roles needing to be filled in the lives of so many of our communities children.
Benefits for Youth of Having a Mentor
Mentoring often provides supportive and healthy relationships for children and teens that may otherwise be lacking. Through volunteer organizations, mentors are often matched or paired with a child based on likes, dislikes, skills, abilities and age. Studies have proven there are multiple benefits for youth paired into successful mentoring relationships, to include:
- Higher graduation rates
- Lower dropout rates
- Lower teen pregnancy rates
- Healthier lifestyle and relationship choices
- Better attitude toward and in school
- Improved academic performance
- Better school attendance
- Higher college enrollment rates
- Improved behavior at school and at home
- Improved interpersonal skills and the ability to cope with difficult situations
- Decreased likelihood of drug and alcohol use
A study conducted by Big Brothers, Big Sisters, a nationwide mentoring organization, showed youth with positive mentors were less likely to engage in bullying behavior, less anxious, and less likely to succumb to peer pressure than at-risk youth without a similar support system in place. All of these factors are consistent with the development of children who feel safe, or at least feel that they have a safe place or person whom they can trust. Children who are constantly in fight or flight mode because of their homelife benefit the most from mentoring relationships, although there is truly some benefit to be had by all teens.
Mentors and Juvenile Delinquency Prevention
Because at-risk children with mentors have someone they can trust, they are less likely to end up in the juvenile delinquency system according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Mentoring has been found to be a proven delinquency prevention strategy because of the positive influence in one’s life to stay in school, avoid drugs and alcohol, and violent behavior. Children with a mentor are significantly less likely to be saddled with a criminal record before turning 18. Unfortunately for a large majority of the nation’s at-risk youth, there is no one encouraging education or rewarding positive behavior, thus they turn to their “friends” on the streets. This leads to some of the most common juvenile crimes, to include drug use, car thefts, burglaries and a multitude of other offenses, many of which are classified felonies and lands these children in a court system that is difficult to escape.
What Makes a Good Mentor
According to Psychology Today there are several factors which make a good mentor:
- Being supportive
- Being an active listener
- Being able to push just enough
- Having an authentic interest in the child
- Fostering self-decision Making
- Being able to lend perspective
As a mentor, you need to plan to have a vested interest in the child you are working with in order to really make a difference. Kids are so much more perceptive than we so often realize and can frequently tell what we are thinking, even when we are trying to hide it. Knowing how to be open and honest with a child or teen is an important trait in a mentor. Believing that one can simply tell a child how things should be and expecting the child to believe you is one of the greatest mistakes adults can make with at-risk youth.
So often these children have had so many more, or at least very different, real world experiences than the mentor expects – it is daunting to say the least. That is where listening becomes so important; many of these children are simply crying out for help and direction in a world that forces them to make adult decisions as a child.
How to Become a Mentor
No matter where you live, there is likely a mentoring program nearby. There are nationwide mentoring organizations such as Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America and Take Stock in Children, along with a variety of smaller non-profit, local groups. Colleges, churches, schools, Athletic Leagues, and the Department of Children and Families or child placing agencies often have volunteer mentoring programs as well. Fingerprints and a background check will most likely be involved, along with an application to see the age of the child you are interested in working with, and also your interests and abilities in order to best match you with a mentee.
As parents to young children, we are busy…we don’t even feel that we have enough time for our own children, much less someone else’s. But with just a hour a week, you can truly make a difference in the life of a child. January is National Mentoring Month, so make it a New Year’s resolution to get out and volunteer. No matter our age, income level, career path or lifestyle choices, we have an obligation as members of this great nation to help those less-fortunate than ourselves, especially our children. These are the children our kids will grow up with, play with, and one day work with in the real world, so let’s take an interest now and make this world a better place for all kid — ours and others included.
For more tips on ensuring your child gets the best education, check out the School section of Daily Mom.
Resources: youth.gov, U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Delinquency and Prevention, Psychology Today, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America
Photo Credits: Kristin dePaula, Ashley Wells