“Then a miracle occurs:” Why we need a better understanding of youth mentoring

by Jean Rhodes

Early in my career, I developed a conceptual model of youth mentoring that, to my surprise, has been a remarkably durable and useful heuristic. It has been applied to formal and natural mentoring relationships and used to explain everything from short-term, goal-focused relationships with classroom volunteers to lifelong bonds with devoted grandparents. The basic idea is that close mentoring relationships help to advance developmental processes (social-emotional, identity, cognitive) which, in turn, can promote a broad range of positive outcomes. The particular needs and circumstances of each youth dictate the particular pathways, as does the strength and consistency of the mentoring bond. Scholars have further delineated the pathways (Hagler, in press; Hurd et al., 2018; Miranda-Chan, 2016). Granted, in terms of  specificity, it has a cartoonish “Then a miracle occurs” quality to it. The particular sequence of “active ingredients” accounting for change is difficult to specify a priori in natural mentoring. Natural mentoring relations are often the byproduct of kinship, where propinquity and family imperatives are potent drivers of enduring, committed inter-generational bonds. Likewise, non-kin mentorships often arise from deeply shared interest (e.g., sports, science, arts) where, in addition to access and regular contact, an alchemy of luck, openness, and natural sympatico draws people together. Such relationships are well, natural– not developed in response to any particular program or funding prerogatives, logic models, or timeframes. 

The same can not be said of formal mentoring programs, which are designed to achieve specific goals, under specific conditions, using a set of  agreed-upon strategies. Such goals and techniques may vary widely, depending on the group being served and the desired outcomes. Even when the goal is simply to forge a friendship, there is typically a set of expectations and performance markers that, presumably, compel the various constituents (mentors, mentees, program staff, funders) to play their respective roles.  More recently, interventions have been introduced with impressive theoretical precision and fine-tuned strategies  (e.g., McQuillan et al., 2017; Weiler et al., 2017). But because different interventions target built on different theories and target such dramatically different populations, risks, processes, and outcomes, it is unrealistic to assume that any given conceptual model is sufficiently encompassing and unifying.

For this reason, the applicability of the conceptual model to formal mentoring interventions has diminished over time. Although many of us have benefited from natural mentoring, we should not expect the same flavor of relationships between strangers.  Of course close, enduring, transformative bonds do sometimes emerge in formal mentoring, but a service model should not be built around outliers.  Formal and natural mentoring relationships share the same mythical namesake, so we fall prey to conflating today’s volunteers with everyone from the Goddess Athena and our own particular champions to the diehard community-based mentors of yesteryear, whose intuitive, free-wheeling approach seemed to know no bounds.  Researchers (myself included) have contributed to the mythology. An influential American Journal of Orthopsychiatry piece (Li & Julian, 2012) described the ideal mentoring relationships as a reciprocal human interaction characterized by an enduring emotional attachment. As the authors argued, this attachment is the only “active ingredient” in mentoring programs, and the reason that interventions often produce weak outcomes is that they focus on what the authors describe as ‘‘inactive’’ ingredients that don’t promote developmental relationships like mentor incentives and training curricula. Although the myth that interventions seeded between strangers can routinely reproduce close, naturally occurring mentorships lives on, the field of formal mentoring is increasingly aligning with intervention science, where tightly stipulated training, curricula, and outcomes are the stock and trade.

All helping relationships, formal or natural, depend on some degree of empathy, authenticity, and positive regard. But continuing to tether formal interventions to a concept that so freighted with meaning, mythology, and expectation is a disservice.  It has led to undisciplined approaches, burdened volunteers with unrealistic expectations, dulled the conceptual and practical precision that is needed to effectively target underlying processes and outcomes, and slowed our alignment with broader scientific communities.  Breaking from the iconic natural mentoring mold will free us to see formal mentoring for what it is–a very promising intervention that can and should capitalize on all that prevention and intervention science has to offer. 

Posted in: Editors Blog

4 Comments on "“Then a miracle occurs:” Why we need a better understanding of youth mentoring"

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  1. Robert Kiedinger says:

    I think the issue is semantic. The field has gone about redefining mentoring as something other than it’s original definition. The distinction between natural and formal mentoring that has gained. I believe Hawkins social development model has something to offer here. At it’s core it says that “I listen to, want to be like, and otherwise take on the attitudes and values of those I believe care about me.” We are fundamentally social beings, seeking attention and affirmation, and we adhere to the attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviors of those that give us that attention and affirmation. In addition to or in the absence of familial relationships, we bond with others around us by accident or otherwise. That is what is referred to as natural mentoring.

    Taking out the bonding element from mentoring (aka formal mentoring) suggests that we will listen to, want to be like, and change ourselves from the input of those who we do not know care about us. So we want mentoring to stand on solid science? Then theories such as the social development model, the longstanding research on the key elements of effective counseling such as genuineness, openness, honesty, etc., the related finding that most of the effects of counseling is accomplished through listening should help guide the field.

    I can (but won’t) recount many an anecdote, with plenty of aligned research, indicating that intervention programs have succeeded and failed based on the characteristics of the programmer. So I pose to you that the social bond (i.e., “mentor-mentee relationship”), however it is labeled, is the key to effectiveness, in programs, counseling, pastoring, nursing, you name it. Even the most recent research on the doctor-patient relationship indicates that a two-way bond, with listening on the part of the doctor, is key to positive outcomes.

    In other words, the SOCIAL BOND is the catalyst, if we are talking about one person influencing another, for ALL settings (programs, counseling, healthcare, even anti-social settings such as gangs). Remove the social bond from the equation and what is left will not be effective, in any setting. But this is a good thing for the field. It means that mentoring, aka the mentor-mentee relationship is another term for the social bond between to people. So mentoring is so foundational to youth development that we should redouble our efforts to create the conditions for it, not take the mentoring relationship out of mentoring. Without it, we lose everything.

    • Kate says:

      I appreciate this thought on the above article. Having recently begun mentoring at a therapeutic placement for children In the foster care system and becoming a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the system I am discovering the difference between natural and formal mentoring. Its been very educational to look at and learn about this relationship from both perspectives.
      On the natural side of mentoring I am a mother of four grown children and have been in ministry for over 30 years. About 5 years ago I came forward as a victim/survivor of sexual abuse that took place in a religious setting. After finding my voice and a level of healing I began to reach back into the religious community where my abuse took place. I have been mentoring survivors on a natural level since then.
      When I began mentoring at the children’s home I struggled to find a balance between the two sides of this position. While I feel quite natural in my mentoring I had to discover what formal mentoring looked like as there really was no training to show me the way. Its been a learn as I go process.

  2. david buchanan says:

    My concepts are that Mentoring Groups are required to engage the Mentees with a unified syllabus, otherwise the left hand would not know what the right is doing, everyone performing their own interpretations, chaos.
    To me the most vital ingredient that a Mentor could possess is the ability to understand, interpret, analyze and decipher a Mentees verbal, emotional and body language.
    This of course is a characteristic that cannot be taught anywhere. In the Mentor training you can discuss, promote or otherwise roll play in an attempt to describe this ability that if you are not a ‘people person’ you will never be a mentor that has the ability to ENHANCE a Mentees latent potential. I have never met in my academic, sporting and business career, two people who have the same characteristics, so the roll of a real Mentor is substantial.

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