My earliest mentor was an artist named Esmé who lived up the street from my family. She would open her tiny art studio to a few neighborhood kids and let us do whatever we wanted. Esmé gave a few pointers and demonstrated some techniques, but for project ideas, she let us take the lead, offering only words of encouragement.
My parents still have some of my art from that time: painted plaster casts of toothpaste tubes inscribed with “Silly String,” glazed ceramic containers with no practical purpose, and many painted pet rocks. These experiences with Esmé had many impacts on me, influencing my choice of career as an artist and art therapist, my belief in the power of creative expression, and my strong support of mentoring young people.
Most of us can recall at least one adult who made us feel special, who nurtured our talents, who reinforced the idea that we were fine just the way we were. These people are mentors, whether in formal programs, at the workplace, or through an informal network of family and friends. In 2016, 3 million adults identified themselves as mentors to young people. One researcher lists 17.6 million additional American youth who want or need a mentor.
For those who are in their preteen years and are open to the experience, a positive adult role model can make a world of difference. Hearing a 12-year-old say, after meeting with her mentor for 12 months, “She had the same personality as me; it helped me feel more comfortable with myself and with other people,” I can only hope that this experience will continue to help her feel more connected to herself and what she finds to be important in her life.
Mentoring also can be an effective intervention, especially for youth who are open to the influence of a positive adult role model. Bay Area author and filmmaker Phil Cousineau, a recent keynote speaker at Friends for Youth’s annual Mentoring Conference, describes mentors as “mind-makers,” those who help others decide for themselves their path in life.
This differentiates mentors from parents, teachers, relatives, and peers who each have important, specific roles of their own. Preteens need to develop a positive self-image and mentors can be the ones to motivate, inspire, and believe in a young person when others may not.
Research shows that the benefits of mentoring include the prevention of alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use; decreased incidents of violence; and greater of academic achievement. These effects are the result of a strong relationship between mentor and mentee, the primary goal of mentoring. While effects like those listed above can occur, it is important to note that not all mentoring is effective.
The encouragement approach is crucial for the positive development of preteens. For example, recent research found that when relationships end earlier than expected, there is great potential for harm, and it would have been better to have never paired a child with a mentor at all.
Nationally, at least 1/3 of relationships, possibly more, don’t last that long, resulting in a significant potential for disappointment. Preteens have so many important questions and the average success rate of Friends for Youth mentors and mentees completing their year together is 88%, with the majority transitioning into multiple-year and even life-long friendships.
We are in contact with mentors and mentees who have known each other 10, 15, and even 25 years. One pair, matched in 1979, still see each other, and the mentee (now 37 years old) works to support other young people who are in need of positive role modeling.