We know from surveying youth that they turn to adults to guide and mentor them, especially in adolescence.
Sometimes these relationships are brokered by youth service organizations and are “formal” in nature. Sometimes, they are more accidental, or at least less formal, and arise out of naturally occurring relationships, such as within families (a relative), within schools (teachers, coaches), within extra-curricular activities (sports, music, art), or within churches (pastors, youth workers).
These “natural” mentoring relationships are most common. The best estimates are that only 15 percent of youth have a formal or brokered mentor, whereas 85 percent have an informal or “natural” mentor.
One prominent feature of natural mentoring relationships is that they are often youth initiated and center on youth seeking guidance in an area of interest to their personal development. The adult is often responding to a need the youth has, whether the need to gain expertise (sports, music, academics), experience (internships, shadowing), or support (emotional, spiritual).
In the formal mentoring sphere, youth are matched with a mentor because it is generally recognized that having a mentor or caring adult in the life of a youth is a good thing for positive youth development. So the motive for the relationship is “to have a mentor.” Out of that might grow a mutual pursuit of an interest, or the support of skill development, or the solution to a specific need.
In natural mentoring relationships, the motive is different. It is the interest, the pursuit of a skill, the felt need on the part of the youth that begins the relationship. In these cases, the youth is looking for specific guidance, and seeks out a caring adult who can answer their specific need.
Students who need help with academics may seek out a tutor or teacher. Students interested in dance or music may seek out (or ask their parents to hire) a teacher. Students interested in sports may join a team with a coach. Some young people may need emotional support and seek out a trusted adult for guidance.
In each case the motive is to answer a need, whether the need is to become better at something (sports, music, art, academics) or to solve a problem (emotional, relational, material).
To increase the presence of caring adults in the lives of youth, we can pursue one of two strategies. We can teach the youth “how to fish” – i.e. give them the desire, skills, and insights they need to find their natural mentors.
Or we can “stock the pond,” – i.e. give adults the awareness, skills, and desire to reach out to youth in mentoring relationships.
Perhaps a third option is also needed: pay attention to the pond’s location. In other words – pay attention to where youth and adults are meeting – where the youth are coming to fish.
The experience of my son in his teenage years serves as a good illustration. Isaac needed a part time job to get some spending money. He found out that his school was paying students for part-time janitorial work. His supervisor, who had no more than a high school education, became a mentor to him – teaching him the value of hard work.
The need was a job, but Isaac also had an interest in becoming a good worker. The pond was the school, where Isaac had connections to caring adults. The relationship developed naturally within that setting. Isaac benefited from the relationship with his boss, who taught him valuable life skills.
The field of positive youth development has long recognized the crucial role of the pursuit of interests (sometimes called “sparks”) and purpose in helping youth thrive.
The discovery of a purpose and a spark can be a key mechanism in youth development that can both motivate youth to pursue caring adults and draw caring adults into the lives of youth. This is the pond where youth and mentors meet – around shared interests.
This post originally appeared on the Thrive Foundation.
Peter L. Samuelson is the Director of Research and Evaluation for the Thrive Foundation for Youth where he has primary responsibility for building, implementing and refining the Foundation’s research and evaluation tools.