When you were growing up, did you have a special person your life who did things with you, gave you advice, or was a good listener? This person may have been a relative or friend of the family who was older than you. If so, then you had a mentor.
Since the early 1980s, formal mentoring programs that pair children with caring mentors have been highly successful. Mentoring, whether an informal relationship or a formal program, has a focused goal: guiding children through adolescence so they can become happy, healthy adults.
You may know that all children need mentors, but did you know that parents make great mentors?
What does it mean to be a mentor?
A mentor is someone who provides support, guidance, friendship, and respect to a child.
Sounds great. But what does that mean?
Being a mentor is like being a coach of a sports team. A caring coach sees the strengths and weaknesses of each player and tries to build those strengths and lessen those weaknesses. In practice, coaches stand back and watch the action, giving advice on what the players should do next, but knowing that the players make their own game-time decisions. Coaches honestly point out things that can be done better and praise things that are done well. Coaches listen to their players and earn players’ trust. They give their players a place to turn when things get tough.
Mentors do the same things: develop a child’s strengths; share a child’s interests; offer advice and support; give praise; listen; be a friend. Mentors help kids to reach their full potential, which includes mistakes and tears, as well as successes and smiles. Mentors know that small failures often precede major successes; knowing this fact, they encourage kids to keep trying because those successes are right around the corner.
What can I do to be a mentor?
There is no magic wand that turns people into caring mentors. Just spending time with your child helps you become a mentor. You can do ordinary things with your child, like going grocery shopping together; you can do special things with your child, like going to a museum or a concert together. The important part is that you do things together, which includes communicating with one another.
You may want to keep these things in mind as you think about being a mentor:
- Be honest about your own strengths and weaknesses.
If you know the answer to a question, say so; if you don’t, say so. To build a trusting, but real, relationship with your child, you only have to be human. All humans make mistakes; you have, and your child will, too. Your child can benefit from hearing about your mistakes, including what you thought before you made them, how your thoughts changed after you made them, and how you changed your thoughts or behaviors to avoid them in the future. A child who thinks his or her parent is perfect builds expectations that parents can’t possibly live up to.
- Respect your child’s thoughts and opinions without judging them.
Even if you don’t agree with your child, make it clear that you want to know what his or her thoughts are, without the threat of punishment. If your child is afraid of being punished, he or she may stop sharing things entirely. Let different points-of-view co-exist for a while; they will allow your child to think more about an issue. Remember that there is an important difference between, “I disagree with you,” and “You’re wrong.”
- Support your child’s interests and strengths, but don’t force things.
Kids spend their childhood trying to figure out who they are, how the world works, and how they fit into that world. Make sure your child has enough room to explore. If your child has no interest in an activity or topic, don’t push. Your child will soon begin to dread the “forced activity” and will find ways to get out of doing it.
- Introduce your child to things that you like to do.
This is a useful way for your child to learn more about you. It’s sometimes hard for kids to picture their parents doing things that other people do, like playing an instrument, volunteering at a nursing home, watching movies, playing a sport, or knowing about art. If your child sees you doing these things, you become more of a “regular person,” rather than “just a parent.”
To read more about how some parents fit mentoring into their daily parenting activities, turn to the section of the booklet that relates to your child’s age. Or, read on to learn about modeling.
Mentoring gives kids the support they need to become the people they are meant to be. But what about you? Are you the person you want to be? Take some time to think about becoming a better model for your child.
Did you know...?
Kids who have mentors are less likely to take part in risky behaviors.
Children who have mentors are 46 percent less likely to use illegal drugs, 27 percent less likely to use alcohol, and 52 percent less likely to skip school than kids who don’t have mentors. Kids with mentors also report that they are more confident of their school performance, more likely to get along with others, and less likely to hit someone.
–Big Brothers Big Sisters Impact Study, 1995
Did you know...?
Your approval or disapproval teaches your child about desirable behavior. 6,12
Parents need to be careful about how they express approval or disapproval. Parents who are harsh in their disapproval may hurt their children’s self-esteem; parents who never express disapproval may raise children who can’t deal with any criticism. Try to find a balance between expressions of approval and disapproval. Be consistent in your rewards and punishments.
Did you know...?
The feedback and advice that parents give can guide children to make more positive decisions. 2
By supporting desired behaviors, parents help their children build self-esteem and self-confidence. These traits give children the inner strength they need to make better decisions when faced with a challenge. It’s important for parents to keep the lines of communication open, so that vital advice and feedback gets to their children.