Few can argue with the idea that having a positive adult role model as a child can substantially impact their life later on. In fact, compelling evidence supports this.
More than one in three young people (around 16 million)have never had an adult mentor—of any kind. That includes some nine million at-risk youth. Studies show that children and young people with mentors are more likely to want to go to college (76% vs. 56% of those without a mentor), take on leadership roles in clubs, athletic teams, or other groups (51% vs. 22%), and are more likely to volunteer on a regular basis in their communities (48% vs. 27%).
Anecdotally, many adults recognize the benefits they could have taken advantage of by having a mentor as a child, like Kay Ramsey, who is now an executive branch director for a Southern California nonprofit:
I often wonder how different my younger life might have been if I’d had a mentor during my childhood as I was sorting through the emotions of adoption and being a product of the child welfare system. Perhaps I would have had someone to turn to when my mother died. Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so alone.
Ramsey works with young people in the foster system, so she continues to see the value of having an adult mentor. It’s simple, yet essential to youth development.
Why Having a Mentor Is Important for Young People
Having an adult mentor is pivotal for developing a young person’s mental health, as they’re able to build on what are known as the Five C’s of Youth Development. Adult mentors help children and young people cultivate each of these essential qualities for becoming engaged adults who contribute to society.
- Competence — Competent young people are able to better navigate the world, make difficult decisions, and create opportunities for themselves. They are able to see beyond their present situation and find motivation to make their dreams become reality. Mentors help youth become competent in academics as well as non-academic areas, creating individuals who are well-rounded and prepared for life.
- Confidence — Understanding your own value is incredibly powerful for a person at any age, and being able to tap into this power as a young person can make the difference between success and failure in life. Confident young people are in touch with their true identities, set goals and achieve them, believe in their futures, and create meaningful change. Mentors help nurture confidence, especially for those who are in foster care.
- Connection — The ability to create strong connections with others—especially positive connections—helps young people develop social skills and feel like they belong. Feeling and knowing that they are part of something contributes to a young person’s sense of self-worth, security, and support. Mentors help young people connect with others, including their family members and peers—even those who appear different from them.
- Character — Character development is essential for young people, as it relates to responsibility, rules, and accountability. A sense of character also touches on spirituality, which contributes to the development of connection and confidence, as well. It incorporates learning by example: right vs. wrong, integrity, loyalty, faith, and cultural expectations. Mentors help drive meaning from life, often leading to a set of core values or personal beliefs a person will live by.
- Compassion — The presence of compassion in a person’s development contributes to their ability to understand and reason with others. It creates a desire to contribute and belong to something greater than themselves. And it motivates them to participate in their family and community lives through volunteering and offering support. Mentors help young people learn about community and social needs. They help whenever they’re able.
Beyond the Five C’s, mentors help young people in gender-specific ways. This includes offering support through difficult situations when they have no one else to turn to.
For girls, having a positive role model can help in numerous ways:
- Young girls may struggle with mother-daughter or peer-to-peer relationships, and having a positive role model who is neither can help them better navigate. Mentors can share stories from their own experience, offer them suggestions for taking action, and simply being an open ear for them to talk to.
- Low self-esteem and depression are all too common for young ladies, and mentors can help combat both. Positive reinforcement goes a long way coming from a person they can trust, and it helps build their confidence so they can navigate any tough situation.
- Mentors can help provide guidance and motivation for career and educational goals, especially for girls who don’t realize their own value or think they may not be good enough for a particular goal.
Likewise, boys receive support in ways that are specific to their development:
- A mentor can be a positive male role model for those missing one, which is very common for boys in and out of foster care. Mentors lead by example; young men are likely to take notice and follow their lead.
- Some boys struggle with academics as a result of their lack of a positive role model, and a mentor can help them recognize their value and work toward their goals. Boys are less likely to ask for help, and a mentor can offer it when they see a young person struggling with academics or anything else.
- As a result of feeling alone and lost without a positive male role model, many young men struggle with discipline and following rules. Through a positive example, mentors help young men understand the value of rules and abiding by them. They help boys understand what it means to become men.
The myriad benefits of having a mentor are clear, but simply having one isn’t the end of a young person’s struggles. Because some kids come from backgrounds where adults are unreliable, they may act out, even sabotaging the relationship. As a result, it’s not easy to be a mentor. But as described above, mentorship is very important to a person’s development, and young person can often use help finding and keeping a good role model in their life.
How to Find a Mentor
A good mentor can be an absolute asset in the development of a young adult who will become an active member of their community. Moreover, a good mentor can lead a child to later become a good role model and mentor to future generations.
Here are some quick tips on how to find a mentor:
Good mentors are everywhere—teachers, relatives, coaches, neighbors, etc. It’s just a matter of finding someone who’s able to connect with a young person’s interests and communication style. The first step in getting a good mentor is scouring your networks for candidates.
Then you just have to ask. Mentors are friends, so it might take a bit of courage, but consider asking a potential mentor to meet up one-on-one for an activity—playing a game, grabbing coffee or a meal—nothing that requires a huge investment of time. Starting small is the best way to open the door to a new relationship.
It’s also important to consider the potential mentor’s interests, as well, that way it’s easy for them to engage and look forward to activities that will maintain the relationship. The last thing you want is for a mentor to feel like the relationship is a burden.
There are plenty of resources to help with finding and maintaining the perfect mentor, and one is your school counselor or teacher. Consider reaching out to a member of the Beacon Network Schools staff for additional help!