In my spare time, I am the proud mentor of a charismatic, funny, kind, and smart 14-year old girl. Whenever we get together, we talk about… nothing, but lots of it! We have seen movies, gone on hikes, eaten pizza, worked on art projects, and played games at the library. Recently, she was asked why she enjoys spending time together. Her answer? It’s fun. There is no pressure and we can just goof off. For me, on the other hand, there is a lot of pressure. Pressure to be a good role model, listen closely, and come up with fun but meaningful experiences. However, in the eyes of my mentee, our time together is down time when she doesn’t need to worry about school work, family, friends, or chores. It’s time where she can just be herself.
If prompted, most of us can think of someone who “made a difference” in our lives — be it a parent, sibling, friend, teacher, or even a celebrity. What is it about other people’s presence in our lives that causes us not only remember their impact, but also to credit them with a piece of who we have become? While you probably can think of your own personal reasons, research also confirms the importance of mentors, especially in the lives of developing youth.
What is a mentor?
A mentor isn’t a parent, but they are trustworthy, reliable, positive adults who support the growth and well-being of the youth.
While parents, siblings, and other family members certainly serve as important role models in kids’ lives, relationships with adults from outside a teen’s immediate family are important and beneficial in a unique way. Although still in need of discipline and structure from parents, teens often consider this parental oversight to be unnecessary or overbearing. Adults from outside a teen’s family can offer differing and impartial perspectives and support for many of the experiences common to developing youth, such as relationships, school troubles, or trying new activities.
There are formal and informal types of mentors. Formal mentors are generally those who are matched with a youth through a mentoring program. This type of relationship tends to be more structured with the mentor agreeing to a certain length of relationship and regularly scheduled meeting times. Whereas informal mentors are those adults that youth come to know, trust and connect with in the course of their daily lives. Both are valuable and can be a positive influence for developing youth.
Why are mentors important for youth?
Mentors don’t fix everything, but having a mentor has been related to decreased problem behavior among teens, and lead to improved psychological well-being, academic success, stronger relationships and higher self-esteem.
Having a mentor can significantly improve the well-being of youth by offering a safe relationship in which youth can share and process their own developmental changes. Parents have a significant investment and strong sense of obligation to secure a certain type of future for their offspring, which can put pressure on the relationship with their youth. Unlike parents, mentors are not required to enforce certain behaviors (e.g., chores), which frees up their relationship with a youth for other more laid back activities. These settings, ideally, create a comfortable space for teens to build trust and share about their lives.
Moreover, adult mentors can connect youth with new perspectives, experiences and opportunities. For example, a mentor may bring their “mentee” with them to a college campus to visit a lecture and see what attending college classes is like. Or, take the lead in a new activity to show that it isn’t as hard or scary as a youth might think. The flipside is, that youth can also share their own knowledge with mentors; for example, teens love to talk about the coolest and newest apps or music artists. Simply by listening, mentors validate the developing interests and perspectives of their mentees.
What do mentors offer youth?
Mentors don’t have all the answers, but they do offer special insight into the world as youth are developing and forming their unique identities. They serve as impartial confidants offering guidance and support as youth navigate their own developmental experiences.
When I first started mentoring, I wanted to make sure that I said and did all the right things. I tried to choose the most fun and meaningful activities for us to do, I found ways to incorporate “life lessons” into our activities, and I always had an answer for everything. In reality, I needn’t have worked so hard at it since many of these things happened organically, as my mentee and I got to know one another, spent more time together, and built trust. When I didn’t have an answer, we would find one together. Allowing my mentee to see me as a regular person has created a space where she can be her own person, and this, has made all the difference.
Next week we will continue the discussion on mentors by highlighting where to find mentors and what kinds of qualities are the most beneficial to have in a mentor and for the mentoring relationship…
Until then, please share:
Did you have a mentor growing up? What do you remember most from this relationship?
Article by Dayana Kupisk
Dayana is a graduate student in Human Development & Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dayana previously worked as a life skills coordinator at a residential living program for teens and young adults. She has one older brother, and, for the first time in her life, is living in a different state from her parents.