Mentoring Youth of Incarcerated Parents: My Experience Volunteering at Big Brothers Big Sisters

Associate editor’s Note: The following article by Dr. Tim Cavell was originally published on The Huffington Post and is republished with permission of the author. In the recent past, The Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring has published content exploring how children of incarcerated parents can benefit from a caring adult mentor. We learned from The Rev. Dr. W. Wilson Goode, Sr. that youth mentoring plays a central role in breaking intergenerational cycles of incarceration. In the past, we have summarized research that suggests youth mentoring interventions may be especially well-suited for children of incarcerated parents. Most recently, Professor Jean Rhodes, Editor of The Chronicle, attended a meeting at The White House to discuss plans to provide and evaluate evidence-based training enhancements for mentoring programs that serve youth within this specific population. Dr. Tim Cavell’s valuable contribution to this ongoing discussion is his perspective and experience mentoring a young boy whose father was in prison. This story is a must-read for any adult who is looking to volunteer at a youth mentoring organization, but feels uncertain about building a relationship with a youth whose guardian, parent, or parent(s) are incarcerated.


Timothy A. Cavell, PhD,

By Dr. Tim Cavell

This week, I’ve been thinking about “A”, the first boy I mentored through Big Brothers Big Sisters. It was his birthday this week, and I try to send him birthday wishes each year, even though I’m no longer his Big Brother.

We met in October, just before Halloween. He had an impish predisposition, an endearing smile and he looked a lot like Asa Butterfield, the young actor from the movie Hugo. It’s a lovely, Oscar-winning movie about an orphaned boy living in a Parisian railway station. I remember the movie because I saw it with A and A was a boy who essentially had no father.

Like many of the boys referred to BBBS, his father was incarcerated and his mother struggled to be a fit parent. A lived with his grandmother and he called her “Mom.”

I do research on youth mentoring and consult with mentoring agencies, but being a mentor was new for me. It was also scary. I was scared that BBBS would reject my application. I talked about this at a conference. And I was scared that A would reject me as a mentor. I wasn’t the typical Big Brother, young and single. In fact, I joked that I had my son on speed dial in case a videogame reference came up and I needed a quick consult.

Youth mentoring is often sold as a way to show children that they matter to at least one caring adult. What’s not advertised is that some mentors don’t matter to the children they’re matched with. A study funded by the Gates foundation found that about 1/3 of matches ended early because, according to the mentors, the mentee didn’t have enough interest in being mentored.

That first meeting at the BBBS office was a bit awkward. One of the first things A’s grandmother said to me was, “So, you’re a child psychologist….” I replied, “I hope that won’t be a problem.”

A had been diagnosed with ADHD, so he was a rather excitable boy who loved to move about and was always chatting on about something. But he was also loads of fun and we did well together. At least, I thought it was fun.

Our first activity was to visit local Halloween stores to find what he needed for his costume. We spent about two hours doing this, going to two different stores.

He wanted to dress as Dragon Ball Z, the main character in a Japanese anime TV series. I had no clue who or what that was, but I did my research and eventually had Dragon Ball Z as my laptop’s background picture.

A loved to roller skate, eat pizza and go to movies and sporting events. I took him to my son’s high school football games.

He was cooperative and well-behaved, but he did push a few boundaries. Once we were in the car and he was quoting a character from a network comedy show. However, his quote included an F-bomb that I was sure didn’t slip by the censors. I chided him by declaring my car a PG-13 vehicle, which means the offensive word can only be used once and no more! His response: “What about once a year?”

One of his favorite movies was Real Steel. It’s a movie about robot-like boxers and I thought A liked it because he also liked movies about transformers. He had seen it once without me, but wanted to see it again. What I didn’t know was that the movie was about a boy who connects with a father (Hugh Jackman) he never knew. I found the storyline moving, particularly because I was watching it along side A and wondering what he was imagining as he saw the growing relationship between father and son.

At times, our age difference was a factor, but not huge. When I took him to see Real Steel (for the third time), we learned there was a change in the schedule and we’d have to wait over an hour to see it. He kept insisting we stay and play arcade games for an hour till the movie started. My schedule didn’t allow for that, so I said we were going to seeing a different movie. After I didn’t relent, he pushed back by saying, “You’re old and 50!” I could only laugh and say, “I’m way old and way 50!”

About five months into our match, I got a phone message from A. He said we couldn’t meet again because his family was moving out of town that day. He thanked me for being his Big Brother and ended, his voice cracking as he began to cry, “I had fun hanging out with you.”

Eventually, A and I had a chance to talk about his moving away. Before the call ended, he asked if I was going to be re-matched with a different boy. I admitted that BBBS staff had asked me about that possibility. He paused and said, “Okay. But remember. I will always be your Little Brother.”

In the U.S., nearly two million children have an incarcerated parent. Many of these children are at risk for emotional, behavioral, school problems and insecure relationships. They tend to live in single parent, impoverished households with high mobility. One study found that 1/3 of the mentoring matches involving children of incarcerated parents ended early. In another study, the authors had “high hopes for successful interventions” but noted that “the factors impinging on children of incarcerated parents are numerous and difficult.”

I now mentor K, a boy whose dad is currently incarcerated. This February, we will be matched for three years.

Hope with me. Be a Big.