I wrote Stand by Me: The risks and rewards of mentoring today’s youth fifteen years ago—my first, and what I assumed would be my final, book-length manuscript on the topic. As I write a second book on mentoring, I am struck by just how much has changed in the ensuing years. Although decades in the making, wealth inequality has soared, casting a disgraceful 22% of U.S. children below the poverty line. A widening wedge between wealthy and poor schools and communities has constrained the talents and economic mobility of a generation of youth. President Obama has described the need to ensure that “opportunity is real” for our nation’s youth as “the defining issue of our time.”
The forces of inequality have also conspired to shift the landscape of mentoring, including it’s the optimal role and reach. But there is one core belief that has not budged–that children’s lives can be dramatically improved and forever enriched by the loving attention of a caring of adult. It’s a simple truth but, in this increasingly complicated world, it bears another moment’s reflection. In the face of seemingly intractable moral, social, and economic issues, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. But through the simple act of forging a kind, authentic connection, all of us have the capacity to fundamentally improve the prospects and quality of a young person’s life. Many of us were brought to this elegant, simple truth by the generous championing of a beloved teacher, the warm embrace of a coach who stepped in at just the right moment, and by the countless other men and women who have taken the time to look out for other people’s children.
So, early in my career, the fundamental questions shifted from whether mentoring was effective, to how we might shape programs, schools, and other settings to harness this powerful influence. At least since Homer’s Odyssey, non-parent adults have been mentoring young people. But the simplicity of this notion, and its intuitive appeal, has, in some ways, been the biggest obstacle to effectively harnessing it into an effective intervention strategy. Mentoring is so easy to visualize, and so seemingly straightforward, that efforts to improve on it can seem unnecessary. Likewise, presenting data on the scale (stable at approximately 2.5 million for a decade) and effectiveness (stubbornly modest) of formal mentoring relationships can seem downright curmudgeonly. But our unwillingness to realistically scrutinize and fully embrace theses challenges has protected bad ideas. All relationships are complicated, and when they are seeded between strangers and nourished through programs, things can grow even more complicated. Psychotherapists began to dramatically improve their effectiveness when they embraced evidence and approached practice with hard-nosed metrics. There is now more than enough evidence to suggest that mentoring can (and must) do the same.
I have been chipping away at this field for half my life and, and like a compulsive gold miner, I can’t seem to stop. Believe me, I’ve tried. But inevitably, other topics lose their appeal and I return to the call of that same seam: looking to unearth just one more nugget; one more grain of truth to hold up to the light. Malcolm Gladwell has described the 10,000 hours one needs to bank before gaining mastery and a state of “flow” in our chosen pursuits. As I’ve multiplied this benchmark by a factor of 10 and then 20, I find myself entering an even more enchanted jigsaw puzzle, where each new piece fits logically into a broader landscape that is only now beginning to take full shape. I suspect that the forthcoming book will be my last on the topic of youth mentoring. It probably should be. But it is just as likely that 15 or 20 years from now, I’ll still be puzzling my way through.