We understand the benefits of mentoring young people when we hear the powerful stories of teens whose lives have been changed by a single, caring adult. If you listen, those stories are everywhere. Like me, you likely have a story about a mentor from your own youth.
I was thinking about all of this recently and realized that I could actually have a story for at least 50 people who influenced or mentored me in some way during 18 years of growing up in a small, tight-knit community -- parents, school teachers, church leaders, Boy Scout leaders, sports coaches, music instructors and first-time employers. Quite remarkable when you stop to think about it and there is a place in my heart for every one of them.
This all gives credence to the expression “It takes a village to raise a child.” It was for that reason that I tried to “give back” to my communities as a minor sports coach, Boy Scouts Leader, Sunday School teacher and Big Brother when I graduated to adulthood.
It is only natural that mentoring is a factor in positive youth development. Now, one of the largest mentoring studies ever conducted continues to support this thinking. The five-year study was sponsored by Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Canada and it found that children with mentors were more confident and had fewer behavioral problems. Girls in the study were four times less likely to become bullies than those without a mentor and boys were two times less likely. In general, young people showed increased belief in their abilities to succeed in school and felt less anxiety related to peer pressure.
Mentoring relationships with youth are complex and there is more to be learned about what makes them succeed, particularly when mentors are matched through organizations like Big Brothers/Big Sisters and other kinds of nonprofits. In my own experience, young people naturally develop mentee-mentor relationships with adults sometime during their middle and high school years. Non-parent mentors – teachers, clergy, and civic leaders – are highly instrumental in how these teens learn to believe in themselves and tackle challenging goals.
We know too that mentoring is particularly beneficial to disadvantaged teens. A university study showed that youth from disadvantaged backgrounds are twice as likely to attend college when they have a mentor, particularly a teacher. It also showed that less than half of disadvantaged students have any adult mentor at all and that only seven percent named a teacher as a mentor.
We also know that young people who experience discrimination, family stressors, and abuse are less likely to break the law or engage in substance abuse if they have a positive mentoring relationship.
In these the lean and mean days, however, community isn't always what it is supposed to be. We'd all like to think we live in a place where people care about others -- where people pitch in to help when things get rough -- where it's safe to leave the doors unlocked and let the kids play outside.
This isn't always what we experience though, is it? Instead of community, we find alienation, envy and hate. Being poor these days just isn't what it used to be.
During the Depression, there was plenty of poverty and misery. But people connected with each other. They had family and friends around them. Everybody was broke and so everybody was in the same boat. And as everyone who is poor knows, there is nobody who is more generous than another poor person. So people helped each other out. Not only with the physical necessities of life -- such as food, clothing and shelter -- but also with the spiritual and emotional necessities. It's pretty awful when you feel like you are all alone and the whole world is against you. Life is a lot easier when you are part of a network of friends and family, a community, a neighborhood.
Today poor people are pawns in games of poli-tricks. People say, "Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, my grandfather did". That may be true, but many of those "bootstraps" are no longer available today. And the first and foremost problem is that the supportive community of our parents and grandparents day, “the village”, the neighborhood, that place where people looked out for each other and supported each other, where they shared joys and sorrows, good times and bad times, in many places is no more. It has gone the way of the gaslight, the horse and buggy. And we're paying a really big price for that loss.
It truly does take a village to work with the family to raise a child and weather the storms of life. If we want that kind of support, the place to begin is with ourselves. We can start by reaching out to our network of friends and acquaintances.
There are many things that we just don't have much control over. But like eating good food, building community is something that we all can do right here, right now, in the places where we live -- whether or not we have a job, an education, or a car. We can make our neighborhood our village and find the truth that humans have always learned the hard way. United we stand, divided we fall -- cooperation is as important as competition. Maybe, at certain times and places, it's more important.
Every kid today deserves a village to grow up in...Sadly, some more than others.