We are all familiar with the tragic headlines of youth such as Phoebe Prince, a high school student in South Hadley, MA who took her life rather than face the bullying that she experienced. And more recently we heard of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University in N.J. and talented violinist who recently jumped off the George Washington Bridge in order to escape cyber bullying online and perhaps offline humiliation.
Through my pain over their deaths and others before them, I ask constantly, did Phoebe and Tyler have non-judgmental adults to turn to that could advocate for them during this difficult time, recognize their problems and perhaps, save their lives? We will never know but I would hope that a caring mentor could have played a role in asking them how they were doing, what were their issues and concerns, how they could help them and perhaps, just perhaps save them from taking their lives.
Many young people have the ability to find and surround themselves with multiple mentors on their own. Often teens in particular will recognize the need and will seek out individuals with similar career interests, or who can help them with school or even life decisions. Typically these mentors provide the youth with support, advice and guidance. Other youth would never be able to find mentors at different stages in their lives unless a third party, namely a parent, teacher or staff of a mentoring program deliberately does the matching.
Why do teens benefit from mentors outside their own family? Have you ever noticed that most young people today would much rather talk to anyone else rather than their own parents? This is probably as good a reason as any why mentors not connected to their family can have a powerful impact on the future of teens. It is simply the notion of talking to someone who is not an authority figure that monitors, supervises or judges them.
If parents reflect back to the time when you were young, most likely you can remember many individuals that helped you in difficult times, enriched your experiences and became positive role models and influenced your lives. I had a Nana who adored me, encouraged me to do anything I wanted to do and was my number one champion. I am Nana today to our five grandchildren because I wanted to model her in every way. I also had a professor in graduate school when I was pursuing my doctoral degree that took me under his wing, had my best interests at heart and took pride in my progress. I could hardly have succeeded in that pursuit without his guidance. He was truly a non-judgmental friend.
Perhaps a parent can remember a grandparent, sibling, teacher, member of the faith community, or the neighbor next door that lent a listening ear at some point in your life. It is my contention that parents should not only play a major role as mentors in their children’s lives, but they should also help their teens to seek mentors for them in the community.
Yet not everyone makes a good mentor. The unique and special characteristics of a mentor include individuals that are caring, considerate, patient, good listeners and positive role models. Mentors should serve in the role of advocate for a teen, seeking resources to help them academically, creating opportunities to shadow them at work and helping them to seek part time employment and guidance regarding life after high school.
Mentors have to show a strong commitment to a teen, the willingness to show up for them when they say they will and be on time and like kids. While liking kids seems pretty obvious, I have unfortunately encountered some parents and even teachers that appear as though they really do not have an interest in or like kids. This is totally unacceptable and not the kind of person that I would want as my mentor.
Parents are a child’s first teacher. If parents recognize the importance of mentors for youth outside of the home and extended family, they can play an effective role in seeking mentors. Where can a parent find a mentor for their teenage children?
- Call your local middle/high school Guidance Department and ask if they have a school-based mentoring program.
- Check to see if your community has a local Big Brother Big Sister agency that matches mentors with youth.
- Seek out your local Voluntary Action Center (names vary) whose mission is to find volunteers to assist youth in the community. Ask them if they know of any mentoring programs.
- Contact your local Boys & Girls Club or YMCA. Both have been active in many communities in implementing mentoring initiatives.
- Your local United Way may also have or know where mentoring programs exist.
- Go online to www.mentoring.org, the website of MENTOR located in Alexandria, VA. You can insert you zip code and find out what mentoring programs are available in your community or area.
Dr. Susan Weinberger is the president of the Mentor Consutling Group in Norwalk, Ct.