Exploring relationships among boys and men: A retrospective, qualitative study of a multi-year community-based group mentoring program
Mark J Van Ryzin, Oregon Research Institute
Secondary Education, Developmental Psychology
Summarized by Jessica Cunningham, B. A., Lab Manager, Center of Evidence-Based Mentoring
You may have experienced multiple occasions of individuals within the community that often associate mentoring with at-risk youth. While it is true that research has shown that at-risk youth gain the most benefits in terms of positive outcomes for mentoring, mentoring is critical to all youth, regardless of their demographics or risk factors. You may also have heard that male mentees prefer activities-based mentoring relationships, rather than relationships based upon emotional disclosure, typically thought of as the preference of female mentees. However, Mark J. Van Ryzin with the Oregon Research Institute reviews a long-term mentoring program in California called The Stepping Stones Project and has revealed new and exciting data on boys communicating emotions within a mentoring relationship that somehow runs contrary to popular belief.
Mentoring has been shown to be a risk-reducing strategy across a variety of age groups and settings, along with having unique positive impacts on mentees. However, little research has been devoted to the impact of long-term mentoring programs on adolescents. Male mentoring relationships are known to have difficulty and have rarely been researched. The researchers in this study used a long-term mentoring program in California that (at the time) only serves boys in order to better investigate the impacts of long-term group mentoring organizations, as well as the factors that influence the development of positive male mentoring relationships.
The Stepping Stones Project is a long-term mentoring program in California that forms groups of 6-8 middle or high school aged youth with 2 “co-leaders” or mentors. Participants in the study included 4 male recent graduates of the program who were all around 20 years old, and seven parents; four mothers, and three fathers. All of the participants were European Americans. Mentors met with mentees twice a month for a few hours and did activities such as hiking or fishing. Mentors also met with parents without mentees in order to get a better feel for the youth’s home life. Interviews were conducted one-on-one via phone. Interviewers then reviewed the transcribed interviews separately to come up with codes for analysis, met together to consolidate the code book and then re-coded all of the interviews according to the new codebook.
The interviews revealed that boys involved in the program were provided unique experiences in communicating their emotions since a large part of the program focuses on helping the youth work through emotions in a healthy way. Parents also noted a marked improvement in their sons’ communication skills. Most of the youth within the group spoke about how the program made them feel safe, and that whatever they said would be heard and respected. They all noted that the group setting made sharing easier, particularly because “it’s easier to have heart-to-heart talks when it’s not your parents, or when it’s in a group setting with other kids sharing things.”
The youth also discussed the relationships between the other youth in the group along with their co-leaders. Both they and their parents stated that the friendships that the boys had with the other mentees in the program were stronger than those between other friends outside of the program. In regards to the co-leaders, due to the fact that mentors often shared personal things with their mentees, the youth felt more inclined to share with them because of their perceived equality within the relationship. The youth’s parents also spoke about how unique this closeness was, stating that “you generally don’t have that kind of closeness in relationships with teachers or extended family members.”
Participants also spoke about how the open and supportive nature of the program helped them to develop a sense of self-confidence and the opportunity to develop their identities in a safe space without judgment. Their parents talked about how instrumental the mentors were in this process; their outsider perspectives were able to help the youth in a way that their parents could not.
Two other themes included shifting levels of power within the parent-child relationship as well as within the mentoring program itself. The program was supposed to help youth to discuss issues with their parents in a constructive way, and this helped to ease the transition of their parents treating them like adults instead of like children. Instead of adolescence becoming a time of conflict and resultant emotional distance, it became an opportunity for them to come closer together. In a parallel fashion, as the boys became more mature, the power structure within the program gave them the opportunity to have more of a voice in how things were done and how the group was to function. This provided them with the scaffolding they required to navigate relationships with their parents and to become independent adults.
Conclusions & Discussion:
By conducting their research with the Stepping Stones Project, the authors of this study are helping to close two critical gaps within mentoring research, as research on male mentoring relationships and their mechanisms of success and failure are sparse, along with literature on long-term mentoring programs.
The researchers conclude that group mentoring with multiple mentors provides youth with unique benefits that are not present in one-on-one relationships. The authors posit that group mentoring provides youth with 3 unique benefits: “(1) Youth have the opportunity to interact directly with peers (i.e. other group members) in a structured context; (2) youth have the opportunity to observe interactions between mentor(s) and other group members in which they are not directly involved, and; (3) in the case of team mentoring (i.e., more than one mentor for the group), youth may also have the opportunity to observe interaction among the mentors.”
Interestingly, previous research has indicated that male mentoring relationships should focus on activities, rather than the emotional closeness cultivated in female mentoring relationships, but this study seems to indicate that the opposite may be true. “…the boys in this study were not reluctant to participate in emotionally intimate conversations; rather, they seemed to be grateful for the opportunity. Indeed, one parent felt that her son was ‘hungering’ for such an environment, in which he was able to express emotions without fear of social rejection. This opportunity was clearly unique for these boys, and something that they did not experience anywhere else in their lives.” The developmental structure of this program seemed to help to make the re-negotiations of parent and child roles less strenuous than they may have been otherwise; amicable re-negotiations lead to better-adjusted adults. In addition, the involvement of parents seemed to be helpful, if not crucial for the boys involved in this study, something that is often overlooked in other mentoring research.
Since this study was exploratory in nature with a largely homogenous sample, the researchers suggest future studies with a larger, more diverse sample.
“This experience was seen as very unique in modern society, and the boys and their parents perceived strong and lasting benefits in terms of communication skills and the boys’ sense of identity. The results from this study speak to the importance of having adult mentors outside of the family, even for boys not disadvantaged by absent or unsupportive fathers. During the course of the program, the parents came to appreciate the benefits of having adult male role models for their children. In summing up the SSP, one parent noted that it helped the parents ‘go through the process of releasing the boys to the world.’”