What I Learned about Good Mentoring

Over the years I put together a subjective list of where to start to mentor children or adolescents well. I am learning as I go along, so this should grow over the next few years, as long as I keep having more impact in kids lives.

Your First And Biggest Role is to Understand

One of the greatest human drives is to be understood - and nowhere is this felt more keenly than in adolescence. Your first task as a mentor is to understand your mentee, your second second is to gain the their respect, and your third is to show them how much you value them. When they feel that someone they respect understands them, values them; likes them, their self confidence increases. (3)

To get to know your mentee, you should meet with their parents, (both of them, if if they have two and it is possible), or guardian(s), before your first meeting and find out everything that you can about your mentee's activities, schedule, phases, likes and dislikes. Make an effort to meet with their other teachers and coaches as you continue the relationship. (4)

On your first meeting, the bulk of the time should be spent asking questions and finding out about them in a way that is fun for both of you - and you should keep that up in every meeting they have. (5) Your goal is to know your mentee better than anyone besides the parents or the closest teachers or family friends.

The sagest advice I've been given is "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." By seeking first to understand your mentee, you will model that maxim in their life.

Your Second Role is to Model

Every interaction you have with your mentee needs to model how they should interact with others. Mimicry one of the best ways to learn lessons. The mentor may even work with the parents to craft a unified strategy for what each parent and the mentor will model so as to minimize competing messages.

Your Third Role: to Inspire

As you get to know them better, the potential you see for them will grow. Your job is to inspire them towards the ambition to fulfill and exceed the potential you see.

You are there to boost their confidence, their capability, and their ambition (often in that order). Help them learn about themselves and learn about the world around them. Enable them to become all that they can be, or want to be.

Always start from where they sees themseves, and seek to expand those horizons. That doesn't mean you tell them that they can do "anything". A smart kid takes that like a slap in the face because it's patently untrue. What is true is that they may be able to do anything (6); so they should reach for the sky, and everything you do should cater to that. Never limit, always expand - unless you are close enough that you are able to work with them on elements such as opportunity cost and focus.

Some things to watch out for.

Don't put your own hopes and dreams onto your mentee. Sure - I mentor people because I wanted a mentor when I was a kid, and didn't get one. But I don't assume that anyone I mentor has the same interests and ambitions as I did. If you really focus on getting to know your mentee first then you let their own hopes and expectations come out, instead of putting your own onto them. Be careful that the world you help your mentee build is their world first, even though you've build it together. It's not the world you wanted for yourself, and it's not the world you want for them.

(3) The two biggest questions in an adolescent's life are "Who am I?" and "Do I matter?" The kind of mentor I am talking about helps their mentee answer both of these questions. Extra! A mentor shouldn't have to work at liking people: he or she has got to be so enthusiastic about the mentee that this is a given. The more you understand a person, the more you love them, warts and all. The mentor approaches every person with the knowledge that they are wonderful, beautiful children - and they will seek to reinforce all that is good in them.

(4) I don't generally meet with tutors, or coaches of individual sports (guitar teachers, piano teachers) that just meet with the mentee one-on-one unless they have a big impact on the mentee's life, because their experience of the person tends to be focused on one technical area of excellence. Coaches of group sports are usually much more important because they get to see see how this child interacts with a group of other people day in and day out. Anybody who has an interest in more than a single area of the kids life is someone you should talk to.

(5) One of my first mentees was so impressed with the way I paid attention to him, "Mom, he takes notes on everything I said!" Nothing spells value to them like someone seeking to understand them, to get to know them, with every ounce of their being! A mentor has to be completely whole-hearted: the mentee has to be the all-encompassing end of his (or her) world for the time they spend together. That alone would make mentoring worthwhile, even without all the experience, guidance, and wisdom that a mentor can bring to the table.

(6) Our lack of knowledge about what is possible is what can make this statement true: for example, "does my kid really think that she can move the sun? Or be an olympic Skiing champion? The probabilities may be infinitesimally low, but outside of a logical fallacy, I don't think we can prove that the possibility is zero for most things. And "may" still works even if it's a logical fallacy: it may be possible, until you prove it's a logical fallacy - and even then, it may be possible that your proof was off, or that new information entering the system changes the definitions or relationships between your axioms.