We often hear the saying that children are our future. But what happens when children take the troubled path, succumbing to crime, drug addiction or self-destruction? If children are our future, isn’t it our responsibility to shape our future by shaping our youth? We can do that through mentorship.
Benefits of Mentorship
Mentors are nothing new or unheard of in my career in academia. Mentors are advisers, teachers, sources of funding and guides about classes, careers, jobs, graduate schools and life choices. Above all, mentors are motivators and role models, who believe in their mentees, see their potential and help them get to where they want to go. During my career path, I would not have known what schools to attend, what career to pursue, what classes to take or what steps to take without my mentors.
Fortunately, I and other mentees in academia are usually adults. Children and adolescents, in contrast, have more limited worldviews and experiences, are individuating themselves, and are beginning to rely less on parents and more on peers. If you think back to when you were a teenager, you may remember trying to figure out who you were and how to navigate through social norms.
To complicate matters, research studies show that the brain continues to mature and develop throughout childhood and adolescence. During this time, the amygdala (a region of the brain responsible for emotional reactions) has been formed, but the prefrontal cortex (an area that controls reasoning and regulates emotion), has not fully developed. Based on the stage of their brain development, children and adolescents are more likely to act impulsively, misinterpret social cues, have accidents, get into fights and engage in risky behavior.
Children and adolescents are at important periods of development. Youth are vulnerable to taking the wrong step, which is why mentors are important for them. Mentors may not be able to change how fast a child’s brain develops or force a child to make certain decisions, but mentors can share their worldviews, experiences, knowledge, support and advice, as well as provide a positive influence. By introducing youth to new experiences and sharing positive values, mentors can help young people avoid negative behaviors and achieve success. For example:
59 percent of mentored teenagers earn better grades.
27 percent of mentored youth are less likely to begin using alcohol.
52 percent of mentored youth are less likely to skip school.
Youth with mentors have increased likelihood of going to college, better attitudes toward school, increased social and emotional development, and improved self-esteem.
Research studies agree. Based on 55 studies of mentoring programs, there is a benefit of program participation for youth, with at-risk youth being most likely to benefit. A similar study of 46 programs for delinquency (e.g., aggression, drug use and academic achievement) found mentoring for high-risk youth to have a positive effect on delinquency, academic functioning, aggression and drug use.
Availability of Mentors
Despite the importance of mentorship for youth, one in three young people report never having an adult mentor while growing up. This statistic translates to approximately 16 million youth, including 9 million at-risk youth, reaching age 19 without ever having a mentor. In academia, mentors are mostly major or graduate advisers and required for students. For children and adolescents, finding a mentor can be more difficult.
Parents and guardians are obvious choices, as they are naturally in the lives of youth and are some of the most influential people in their lives. Parents and guardians are youth’s No. 1 influence against poor choices, with 91 percent of teenagers in one study citing parents as good role models. However, parents and guardians may not possess all the answers, and sometimes, youth need an external person or a variety of people with whom to talk and share their thoughts.
Teachers, coaches, ministers and neighbors are great options outside of parents and guardians. Referred to as informal mentors because they are naturally-occurring and not matched, they all have the capacity to be good role models, inspire youth and shape their future. Mentors for youth are also available through formal and structured mentoring programs. An example is Big Brothers Big Sisters, a one-on-one national mentoring program that matches adult volunteers and children ages 8 to 16. There are also local programs through schools, community groups and faith-based organizations. An example is the Youth Leadership Council , which is a nonprofit in Houston. For an annual leadership development conference, the Youth Leadership Council matches three young adult mentors with 12 high school students. Other mentoring opportunities can be found through the National Mentoring Partnership website.
Why Should I Mentor?
As somebody who has mentored youth and believes strongly in the value of mentorship, I ask those of you who are not mentors: Why not? Not only is mentorship beneficial for mentees, mentors gain from the experience. Mentors learn about themselves, enhance their resumes, improve interpersonal skills, develop empathy and gain a deeper understanding of youth problems. Most importantly, mentors gain a sense of accomplishment by positively impacting the life of another person; the process of helping youth achieve their potential and discover their strengths is rewarding in itself.
Many of us would not be where we are without the support of mentors. If we are able, we should pay it forward, and then in turn, mentored youth will pay it forward and mentor others. They can shape our future, all by us mentoring and shaping theirs.
Cassie Diep Yeung is a postdoctoral research fellow in child nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine and the current president of the Youth Leadership Council based in Houston, Texas. She graduated from Rice University with a B.A. in Kinesiology and from Texas A&M University with an M.S. and Ph.D. in Health Education. Cassie has been involved in YLC since 2006 and believes strongly in youth empowerment and healthy equity, which she pursues in her research and community efforts.