Parents’ and caretakers’ perceptions of informal youth mentorships

Weiler, L. M., Keyzers, A., Scafe, M., Anderson, A., & Cavell, T. A. (2020). “My village fell apart”: Parents’ Views on Seeking Informal Mentoring Relationships for Their Children. Family Relations, n/a(n/a).

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Although evidence has proven the benefits of having non-parental figures involved in children’s lives, many youths grow up without having any mentors
  • Parents have to ability to gatekeep their children’s support networks, as well as their involvement in supportive services, so parents may have an influence on their children’s ability to have informal mentors
  • This current study examines how parents discern the facilitation and potential barriers of informal mentoring
  • Although parents/caretakers expressed their openness in having nonparental adults in their kids’ lives, potential mentoring figures within each of their social network differed
    • Feeling uneasy about having an inconsistent or unsafe mentor and being too prideful to seek help were two salient barriers that came up from the study
    • Facilitative factors consisted of feelings about being part of one’s community, enjoying the benefits of informal mentoring, and willingness to ask for help when one’s feeling anxious or skeptical
  • More research needs to be conducted on how parents/caretakers can help their children find supportive informal mentors

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)


To assess parents’ perceptions of barriers and facilitators to promoting informal mentoring relationships for their children with caring adults in their existing social network.


Supportive relationships with nonparental adults are critical to positive youth development, social capital, healthy living, and upward mobility, but not all children experience such relationships. Because parents are the primary gatekeepers to children’s social networks, we presumed that parents could play a role in shaping children’s informal mentoring relationships.


We conducted eight focus groups and used a semistructured interview to ask participants about mentoring and potential barriers or facilitators to connecting children with informal mentors. Participants were 55 parents/caregivers (Mage = 41.43 years; 96.4% female; 77.9% unmarried).


Parents were open to the involvement of nonparental adults in children’s lives, but they differed in the extent to which their social network offered viable mentor candidates. Other barriers included feeling too proud to ask for help and concerns that informal mentors would be unsafe or inconsistent. Facilitative factors included appreciating the benefits of informal mentoring relationships, feeling connected to one’s community, and being able and willing to ask for help in the face of doubt or fear.


Parents were generally positive about children receiving support from informal mentors and acknowledged the potential role they could play in forming those connections; they also recognized potential barriers to making those connections.


Parents’ perception about their “village” suggests the need to develop and evaluate programs that help parents connect children with supportive informal mentors.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Participating parents were fairly uniform in voicing favorable views about mentoring relationships for their children. This would be expected given that all had children currently enrolled in a formal mentoring program. Parents’ willingness to invest in mentoring was tied to a desire that their children feel accepted and understood by a supportive adult, ideally one who would broaden children’s experiences and serve as a suitable role model. There was considerable variability, however, in the extent to which parents felt part of a “village” that provided reliable support and a network of potential mentors for children (Ichikawa et al., 2017). Some parents reported being isolated or feeling disconnected from extended family and community; others had little difficulty identifying opportunities to access and get support from other adults. We also found that parents identified a wide range of individuals who could be potential mentors for their children. In line with previous studies (Van Dam et al., 2018), family members, school personnel, and neighbors were among the individuals mentioned.

For some parents, the lack of a supportive village was linked to frequent moves or to living in places with limited resources (e.g., geographically isolated, extremely violent neighborhoods). Previous research has shown that adolescents from low‐income families tend to have limited access to naturally occurring mentoring relationships (Raposa, Erickson, Hagler, & Rhodes, 2018). Scholars have shown that socioeconomic status (SES) and other social factors (e.g., neighborhood characteristics, culture, religion) can affect the size, composition, and perceived supportiveness of one’s social network (Freeman & Dodson, 2014; Putnam, 2015). Because poverty can engender uncertainty about one’s circumstances and diminish hope for the future, the focus is on meeting basic, immediate needs, which can make it difficult to connect with community and find potential mentors for children (Radey, 2015). On the other hand, low‐SES parents who seek and find social support are often identified as more resilient than those who remain relatively isolated (Orthner, Jones‐Sanpei, & Williamson, 2004). The support of an informal mentor not only eases parental stress, it can also add value to the lives of children. Timpe and Lunkenheimer (2015), for instance, found that having a male mentor was associated with higher income earnings for African American boys who did not have a father figure in their lives.

Theoretical frameworks, such as the PPCT model, suggest family dynamics (e.g., divorce, incarceration, or substance use) and individual characteristics (e.g., personality traits or personal experiences) can influence the range of supports available to and accessed by children and their parents. Consistent with the PPCT model, we found variability in the extent to which parents viewed their social network as a ready source of supportive relationships for their children. Perceived barriers included limited access to potential mentors, doubts about whether available adults were capable of being a consistent presence in children’s lives, and serious risks associated with allowing children to be in the care of another adult. Indeed, because all participants were connected to a formal program, it is also possible that some parents sought formal mentoring due to limited access to quality, trustworthy natural mentors. This last barrier included the potential for children to witness various irresponsible or antisocial behaviors (e.g., drug use) and also to be the target of predatory behavior by adults seeking sexual exploitation. Indeed, several parents in this study pointed to BBBS’s process of screening volunteers as a necessary condition for children’s involvement in mentoring relationships with adults outside of their family. Parental fear and distrust are normative parental responses and should be acknowledged in the process of fostering positive informal mentoring relationships. Given parents responsibility to protect children and to keep them safe, these reactions (e.g., fear, distrust, and concerns for safety) are warranted and should not be overlooked, but leveraged to help parents find safe adults.


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