The attacks in Paris raise difficult questions for mentors. Should mentors, teachers, and other caring adults shelter young people from stories and explanations, and shift conversation elsewhere. Although this might be a good idea in some instances, there may be situations when it’s helpful to talk through difficult topics with mentees. Particularly when young people are eager to discuss and understand, events such as this, when handled well, provide mentors, teachers, and other caring adults with profound “teachable moments.” As this powerful New York Times video points out, the best way to start is to respond to the young people’s questions in a clear, compassionate manner that they can understand.
Of course, discussing politics, religion, and world events can be difficult, particularly when there are competing ideas about what is best for our country – ideas that are rooted in differing values, culture, and worldview? Promoting the welfare of a young person does, in many cases, require that mentors build rapport not only with mentees, but also with the mentees’ primary caregivers so that they may develop an understanding of the family’s circumstances, belief systems, and expectations. If mentors lack such sensitivity they can misuse their power with heavy-handed persuasion. Power differentials inherent in the ages and roles of adults and youth can widen when there are also differences in class and cultural backgrounds. Mentors may not even be aware of the social inequities driving these differentials or how these can play out in interpersonal relationships (Fisher, 1997). Mentors may express beliefs or opinions that are at odds with the experiences, values, and beliefs of their mentees, creating conflict for the young person. They should thus strive to refrain from religious or political proselytizing, raise their own awareness of power dynamics in cross-age and cross-cultural relationships, and seek consultation from mentoring programs to effectively negotiate this territory. Such training can be critical to the success of mentoring relationships. Moreover, programs can improve efforts to reach volunteer mentors with backgrounds more similar to the youth being served (Liang & Grossman, 2007).
If a sensitivity to these issues and power inequities remain paramount, mentors’ capacity to engage in ideas can be used for good–honing and improving young people’s mental abilities. The Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky described a “zone of proximal development” in which learning takes place for young people. Think of this zone as a psychological stretch: it’s beyond what a young person can do when thinking about an issue on his or her own but within the range of what he or she can do while under adult guidance. When stretched into this zone, youth’s own mental and emotional capacities can improve and grow. And, what is today a stretch can, in the future, become part of a young person’s own capability. Thus, it is when we, as mentors, parents, teachers, and other caring adults, grapple with young people around complex issues, that they can begin to think more clearly and critically about the world around them.
We should be protecting our nation’s youth. But what children need to be protected against is prejudice, knee-jerk solutions, and simplistic analysis of complicated issues. If we can remain respectful of diverse opinions, and mindful of the power accorded mentors and other adults, we can and should view world events as an opportunity to begin a lifelong habit of engaging in authentic conversation and civic engagement with young people. Critical thinking that challenges them to question and improve the status quo is the essence of the American spirit. So, while mentors should avoid trying to persuade their mentees to adopt a particular stance, they should be standing ready to help young people understand today’s issues in all of their complexity.