No longer a drive-by mentor (or how Renee Spencer got me to slow my roll)

tim_cavell2Three years ago, Renee Spencer and her colleagues at Boston University published a study exploring what parents think about their child’s mentor. I knew of the article but had not read it carefully. Two months ago, I heard Dr. Spencer talk about this study and had a chance to discuss her findings with other researchers and mentoring practitioners. We learned that parents have high hopes for their child’s mentor but they also pay close attention to how mentors treat them and their child. They can be skeptical of mentors who come from different backgrounds (e.g., Caucasian and affluent) but they can also recognize the opportunities that might come from such a match

As a researcher, these findings and the ensuing discussion had my head spinning. I was into serious theorizing—bringing in related concepts, drawing diagrams of the model forming in my head, and pondering ways to measure and test the model.

This is not an uncommon experience for researchers: A new set of findings can be just the trigger that “gets our geek on”.

But I didn’t realize that this event would change me as a mentor. Before, I had a good relationship with my mentee’s mom (a divorced mom with 5 children). I was respectful and supportive and willing to work around logistical obstacles so that visits with her son were consistent. Our interactions were always cordial—when they happened—but the conversations were typically short and to the point.

Dr. Spencer’s findings opened my eyes and changed radically how I view this mom and how I think about my role as a mentor. I began to consider what it must be like for her: She’s willing to risk letting her son go who-knows-where with a stranger on the hope that this stranger can be a positive influence in his life. I knew he had little contact with his father, but now I wonder if she expects me to be a father-like figure. I now understand that if my mentee and his mom witnesses me simply “visiting”, if he can hear me offer her praise or encouragement, if they see that I’m in no hurry to drive away at the start or end of a visit, and if he has no doubt that I respect his mother, then my capacity to have a positive influence is greatly amplified. Lessons learned from Dr. Spencer’s findings and the chance to reflect on them had left me with a sense that I now truly see his mother and I can and should be more open to an authentic relationship with her.

As I write this, I wonder a couple of things.

First, do female mentors routinely connect with the parents of their mentees in this way? Is it only men (or this man!) who struggle to make those connections? As Dr. Spencer found in her study, race, SES, and culture, in addition to gender, are all likely contributors to the mix.

Secondly, is this shift a dangerous one that could lead me to lose perspective on the role and goals of mentoring? Clearly, a stronger connection with a parent should only be in service of the mentoring relationship and what is beneficial for the mentee. As a psychologist, I’ve had years of practice maintaining those kinds of boundaries, but I bet that many other mentors can find that balance between their role as mentor and their efforts to connect with and support a mentee’s parents. It would help if we had research that can guide mentors (during training and supervision) as they strive for greater influence with their mentee by building stronger connections with mentee’s parents.

Perhaps Dr. Spencer and her colleagues have more work to do!