All children need an adult to help with homework, listen when they have a problem, and push them to be their best. If you're overwhelmed by the stresses of life and parenting or just think your child needs another caring adult to help foster successful habits, a formal relationship with an adult mentor might be the answer.
According to MENTOR: National Mentoring Partnership, about 3 million American kids between the ages of 6 and 18 have adult mentors in their communities. Another 15 million children want and need one, MENTOR says. "Every child benefits from added adult interaction," says Sandra LaFleur, senior director of youth outcomes at Big Brothers Big Sisters, which matches more than 270,000 children in a dozen countries with mentors. But how do you know if a mentor is right for your child?
What is a mentor?
Each program is different, but in general mentors are paired up with children for a long-term relationship. Kids meet with their mentors on a regular basis. Mentors go to the kids' school functions, go out to eat, help with homework or just hang out. This might sound simple, but MENTOR spokeswoman Ellen Christman says this bond with an adult helps children stay in school and away from gangs and drugs.
While mentors are advocates for the kids they work with, their job isn't to replace a child's parents or fix problems in a family. "We’re just an extra pair of hands here to help," LaFleur says. In fact, parents have the equally important job of taking an active role in the partnership. This means communicating with a child's mentor, talking your child about his mentor and working with the mentor to arrange activities. "The willingness to work with us is the No. 1 thing," LaFleur says. "Parental involvement is crucial. Without that, it won't last."
Children come to mentoring programs in different ways. Covenant to Care for Children, based in Bloomfield, Connecticut, serves low-income kids who are referred by religious groups, social workers or counselors. Many of these children are at risk of ending up homeless or in prison, and often live with a single parent or a grandparent. Most of the kids that Big Brothers Big Sisters matches with mentors have single parents, come from low-income families or have parents in prison. While most children in the program are disadvantaged in some way, LaFleur says that could mean a child is doing poorly in school or has parents who are busy caring for older relatives. "It doesn't necessarily mean that they live in the poorest neighborhood or have a parent that's incarcerated," she says. Every child could benefit from a mentor.
How Mentors Help
Research has found that children with adult mentors do better in school and act more responsibly. According to MENTOR, when compared to their peers these kids are 52% less likely to skip a day of school, 46% less likely to use illegal drugs, and 27% less likely to drink alcohol. Many parents seek the help of mentors because they want to expose their children to more opportunities. "All of them (parents), regardless of the situation, want things better for their kids," LaFleur says.
Mentors can show kids the importance of doing well in school, take them to concerts or museums, expose them to things they may not have otherwise experienced. This relationship helps children see their own potential to be successful. A mentoring relationship could also open up opportunities for children to meet people who have jobs they may be interested in, allowing them to network and learn about what it takes to start on a certain career path. "You want to be a lawyer? Why? Because they are rich and have a fancy office," says Rich Davis, who coordinates the program at Covenant to Care for Children. "OK. Let's visit one and see what it takes."
Big Brothers Big Sisters has found that mentors also make the lives of parents easier. Parents' lives are less stressful when they can count on another trusted adult to take an active role in their children's growth and development. A mentor is an adult in a child's life - other than their parent - who is there to listen to kids share things they may not feel like talking to Mom and Dad about. "We can be seen as a reprieve, just by giving the busy mom a break," LaFleur says.
Finding a Mentor for Your Child
Mentoring programs exist in many communities. MENTOR's website features a searchable directory of programs in different states. They don't all meet the same standards, but Christman says each program requires mentors to go through a background check and commit to a long-term relationship with a child. Some parents learn about Big Brothers Big Sisters through social service agencies or their children's schools. But most kids find out about mentoring programs through word of mouth – or from kids whose friends take part in the program. "They hear about it, and they want one, so they tell their mom, their dad or their grandma," LaFleur says.
Finding a mentor for your child could produce immeasurable benefits. Mentors open up worlds of opportunities for kids, encouraging them to get a good education, make responsible decisions and have a successful life. "This is your kid's adult friend and coach and confidant," Davis says. Make your child a part of the process and keep them involved. Go online, talk to people in your community, find out if your school recommends any particular mentoring programs and get started.