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The Magic of Youth Mentoring

Things are different for young people today. Our parents reared us in a Leave It To Beaver world in which Dad went off to work with a pipe and smile and you never saw Mom out of her apron. Then Dad came home, dinner was on the table, and The Beav went off to solve the world’s problems while Eddie Haskell popped in to hang with Wally and suck up to Mrs. Cleaver. It is perhaps ironic that the children of that generation, who are the parents of today’s high school students and the working “generation-X” set, have set new records for divorce rates and created unprecedented statistics for single and double-income parenting.

About one in four school children today are being reared in single-parent households, the vast majority of those single parents having full-time jobs, leaving Junior to come home to an empty house every day after school. One half will experience this latch-key existence before they graduate from high school, if they indeed do graduate. And the vast majority of the rest live in homes where both parents work. About the only thing that’s improved on the home front is the fact that Dad’s pipe is missing from the picture, and for that matter there are fewer ashtrays in the collective households of America than ever before. Other than that, the experience of growing up in America is more solitary and unmanaged than ever.

This social trend has given rise to a new phenomenon in the discipline of raising our children, one that June and Ward Cleaver never heard of. It’s called “child mentoring,” and it manifests in everything from the informal attention of a concerned neighbor to a structured program funded by tax dollars, complete with administrators and volunteers and agendas that match the needs of the child to the experiences of those volunteer mentors who are assigned to them. Mentors become surrogate friends and parents to these kids, taking on much of the role formerly assigned to parents who are off pursuing the rent payment. The National Mentoring Database listed over 1700 “official” mentoring programs in 2002, a number that has likely increased as more and more parents divorce and leave the nest to earn a living.

Those who operate and evaluate mentoring programs have learned a few things over the years. It turns out that the most immediate and dramatic benefits of are social, rather than academic. Kids learn to trust adults and their peers, while there is negligible impact on academics. The best programs seek to involve parents, taking care not to supercede, intervene with or otherwise threaten the primary child-parent relationship. The most successful mentoring relationships are those that remain in place for a year or more, and involve structured activities that involve scheduled meetings, field trips, sporting events and social activities.

Most major metropolitan communities have some form of mentoring available, and qualified volunteers are always welcome. Concerned parents should do their research and get involved to whatever extent possible. Because while the pressures of a career and single parenthood won’t diminish, the potential downside for your children just might.

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