Book review by Prof. Richard Lerner: Older and Wiser: Rethinking Youth Mentoring for the 21st Century

by Richard M. Lerner, Bergstrom Chair in Applied Developmental Science, Professor and Director, Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development, Tufts University

Albert Einstein once famously said that, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

In this superb book, Professor Rhodes has demonstrated why she is regarded as our nation’s, and arguably the world’s, foremost authority on youth mentoring. She has singularly broad and deep knowledge of the theoretical and methodological facets of the scientific literature and, as well, unparalleled understanding of and insight about the program and policy implications of the findings of descriptive and evaluation research.

In a book that is remarkable in several respects, Professor Rhodes meets the standard set by Einstein.  She demonstrates thorough command of a complex and controversial literature and yet, at the same time, she conveys her knowledge with a style so accessible that the book will be attractive to scholars, practitioners, students (including advanced undergraduates), and parents and other caregivers considering mentoring program participation for their youth.

I have already implied two instances of the remarkable work that Professor Rhodes has produced.  However, I think there are at least seven categories of distinctive contributions made by this book.

First, the breadth of the of coverage in this book is impressive. Professor Rhodes reviews the origins and scientific and program history of mentoring; analyzes both the benefits and shortcomings of mentoring programs and, as well, of research and evaluation efforts associated with mentoring; discusses innovations in mentoring, including integration with other approaches to enhancing youth development, that may broaden the reach and impact of mentoring; and offers a creative and inspiring roadmap for the future of scholarship and application.

Second, the quality of the writing in this book is exceptional.  In addition to her clear and, as already noted, broadly accessible style, Professor Rhodes seamlessly weaves together vivid and often moving vignettes about her life and the lives of youth and their mentors that frame for readers the fundamental importance of mentoring in the lives of diverse young people.  The ability of Professor Rhodes to integrate these vignettes with the science she is discussing is unique, refreshing, and effective.  This approach to writing will make this book attractive to the broad audience I have noted earlier in this review.

Third, Professor Rhodes demonstrates a thorough mastery of the data about mentoring.  She possesses the rare ability to be able to explain complex statistical concepts and tools (e.g., effect size and Cohen’s d, respectively) in clear and accessible prose.  In addition, I thought that her use of, and discussions about, tables and figures were particularly effective.  She again guides readers through what might otherwise be daunting information and offers interpretations of these data that are both informative and persuasive.

Fourth, Professor Rhodes brings to this book an especially rare attribute for academics, particularly an academic who is so deservedly eminent as she is: Intellectual Humility! Indeed, she models such humility for the academic readers of this book and, in so doing, sets a standard for appraisals of the literature framed by frank and candid evaluation of data (and not on positioning based on vested interests or ego). Chapter 3, “Why we got it so wrong for so long,” is an exemplar of this humble approach to science.

Fifth, the title of the book is very appropriate.  The wisdom of Professor Rhodes comes through across all chapters of the book. Her recommendations for improving mentoring constitute an excellent case-in-point.  I particularly like her idea of calibrating risk with intervention.  This recommendation moves towards the use of specific mentoring procedures to address the specific issues involved with specific youth. Her attention to specificity reflects both cutting-edge ideas in the contemporary study of youth development (e.g., see the work of past SRCD-President Marc Bornstein on the “Specificity Principle” in developmental research and, again, the work of Todd Rose who argues that attention to the specific attributes of specific youth, and not to a non-existent “average youth,” should frame research and intervention in developmental science). Similarly, her discussion that, for some specific youth, “good enough is good enough” again raises the importance of specificity and attention to the individual young person and not the average young person. As well, her chapter on specialized mentoring also contributes greatly to this movement toward individualization.

Sixth, the contextualization of mentoring presented by Professor Rhodes places mentoring programs into the broader ecology of youth development.  This contextualization is exemplified with her “supporting actors” chapter.  Her contributions here reflect the cutting-edge emphasis in contemporary developmental science on the use of relational, dynamic systems models of youth development to promote the positive development of youth.

Seventh, Professor Rhodes presents a persuasive, indeed a compelling, vision for the future of mentoring.  Her erudition and her warmth and humanity combine in this book to inspire readers to do better than has been done before, and her wisdom lights a path for scholars, practitioners, mentors, and parents to collaborate on creating new, vigorous, and diverse approaches to mentoring, approaches that will enhance the lives of the diverse young people who might profit from such programs.

In sum, Professor Rhodes has written a uniquely important and singularly well-documented and well-reasoned book.  I believe it will be acclaimed by a broad readership.  I believe as well that it will quickly be seen as a “classic” in the application of developmental science.

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