Why neither baseball nor mentoring should be a home run derby

by Jean Rhodes

For years, I was stubbornly convinced that formal mentoring programs should focus exclusively on creating and maintaining deep, emotional bonds. I saw attempts to scale back on relationship length and strength, or to rely on curricula, as existential threats to the field–destined to reduce already modest effects. But, with the help of Tim Cavell, Sam McQuillin, Heather Taussig, Mike Garringer and many other colleagues, I have since dispensed with romanticized notions of what relationships should be in favor of a more operational approach that emphasizes rigorous prematch training and ongoing support. Of course a base of closeness and trust is necessary, and training and support should ensure that. But I no longer believe that a deep emotional bond is the sine quo non of all good mentoring. The problem isn’t so much that such bonds are ineffective—indeed they can be enormously helpful, particularly for youth who have insecure attachments and/or have suffered abuse or neglect. The issue is that they are not always necessarily. Many youth don’t need the “corrective experience” that enduring, trusting ties can provide, and are better suited to more targeted approaches based on their needs and interests. And, even when youth could benefit from close, enduring ties, they are not the norm. Instead, long-term, emotional bonds are inspirational outliers against which other relationships are often measured. They are the stuff of highlight reels, the home runs that sail across the summer skies. But neither baseball nor mentoring should be a home run derby. Yes, there will be some spectacular hits, but all of mentors should be well prepared to play the game.

Our conceptions of the deep, emotional bond were molded in the image of the traditional community-based mentor, whose intuitive, free-wheeling approach seemed to know no bounds. Such notions continue to shape the views of researchers and practitioners alike. An influential American Journal of Orthopsychiatry piece recently described the ideal mentoring relationships as a reciprocal human interaction characterized by an enduring emotional attachment. As the authors argued, this attachment is the only “active ingredient” in mentoring, and the reason that interventions often produce weak outcomes is that they focus on what the authors describe as ‘‘inactive’’ ingredients that don’t promote developmental relationships like mentor incentives and training curricula. Although such conceptions continue to shape practitioners’ expectations and values, there is growing evidence that the training is often the active ingredient, and that holding all matches to the ideal can intimidate volunteers. The website for the 2016 Gala Matches of a Bay Area mentoring program describes one pair as having, “now been matched for over 5 years, and they couldn’t be happier. Andrew is not only a fixture in Jezreel’s life, but is also the person he turns to for advice as he prepares to head off to college (Jezreel is aiming for the Ivy League!). We know no matter where life takes them, these two will be a part of each other’s lives forever.” Or the other pair, “The two have been matched for over two years and in the words of their match support specialist, the “absolutely adore each other.” Together, they’ve gone to movies in the park, visited art shows, and have even taken surfing lessons! Even when they’re apart, Michelle and Celine check in frequently with phone chats and text messages.” There is no disputing the power of such ties to transform lives.

But a series of meta-analyses have highlighted the stubbornly low effect sizes of mentoring programs, while other studies point to the persistently high rates (over 40%) of earlier than expected match closures. And although adherence to the basic standards of evidence in our field produces fewer early match closures (Kupersmidt et al., in press) as well as larger effect sizes (DuBois et al., 2011), only a fraction of programs abide by such standards. Likewise, although evidence points to the importance of  providing training around mentees’ specific needs, most programs continue to rely on one-size-fits-all approaches. It’s not that program staff are actively rejecting evidence. Many are simply stretched to their limits as they wrestle with high staff turnover, unpredictable budgets, and a thin and sometimes uneven volunteer pools. Add to that the growing difficulties facing many of our nation’s youth and simply keeping a match together can be a noble challenge.

But our idealized notions of close, enduring bonds may also be a culprit. When long-lasting emotional bonds are the normative expectation, staff may worry that saddling volunteers with too much structure will short circuit their natural instincts and relationship-building capacities. Certain youth may only respond to deep, emotional ties, and we should select and train mentors accordingly. But for many youth, we may get a similar bang for our buck with less close ties.

There are other problems inherent in our idealized view of mentoring relationships. When mentors, programs, parents and even kids are led to expect that much from the bond, they may blame themselves when things fall short. These idealized stories of perfect, enduring matches can also dampen charitable giving. Donors are quite readily seduced by extreme success stories, but a narrow focus on the outliers may lead funders to downplay what it really takes to successfully operate a mentoring program and obscure the broader program and community needs. Such stories are also intimidating to potential volunteers, myself included.  We all think in stories–and when tales of selfless mentors get lodged in our brains,  it’s hard to step outside this narrative and consider the readily available data regarding actual match lengths and outcomes. Intellectually I may know that Andrew and Michelle are outliers–the Facebook equivalent of the perfect family on the perfect vacation–but emotionally I remain worried that I could never deliver as much as they did. The fact is that many Americans feel that they simply don’t have the “emotional capital” to forge enduring emotional attachments with strangers. At the end of the day, we are hard pressed to fully give ourselves over to anyone outside our tightly knit worlds. But many still have something valuable to offer. Dispensing with intimidating exemplars may attract a wider pool of everyday adults.

There will always be the lucky relationships—those home runs of deep emotional closeness–and we know them when see them. But it makes little sense to hold the rest of the field to this standard. With better needs assessment, more realistic expectations, and more targeted, evidence-based approaches to mentoring, we can begin to more fully embrace approaches that make consistent base hits.