by Jean Rhodes
The CDC recently provided valuable guidance on how to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine, including listening with empathy and asking open-ended questions. Likewise, last week, an NPR Health News report answered teens’ most pressing questions about the vaccine. These are useful resources, as teens tend to rely heavily on social media and can easily be led astray by misinformation about the risks and benefits of vaccines. Mentors may thus have a valuable role in helping their mentees sort through information and make decisions about vaccines in their own lives. The problem is that, unlike other topics (e.g., wearing seatbelts, fitness, dental care), decisions about the COVID-19 vaccine have been cast in political as opposed to purely medical terms. This raises tricky issues about what non-parents adults should do if such conversations come up.
What’s a mentor to do?
First, let’s start by acknowledging that mentoring relationships are often rife with unacknowledged power inequities inherent in the different ages, roles, class, cultural backgrounds of many adult mentos and youth. Mentors may not even be aware of these power differences and may express beliefs or opinions that are at odds with the experiences, values, and beliefs of their mentees and their families. Mentors should, of course, refrain from any religious or political proselytizing, rand they should arise their own awareness of power dynamics and seek consultation from mentoring program.
An argument could also be made, however, that mentors’ relative power (i.e., position, scientific knowledge, experience) can be used for good–so long that conversations can be approached with care. If the topic of vaccines come up, perhaps mentors could ask the young person’s opinion on the issue and why. This helps the youth to clarify values and understanding, while sending a message that concerns and values are worthy a worthy of respect and taken seriously. Even if mentors don’t agree, they can show that disagreements don’t have to divide us and that differences in viewpoints don’t have to be bitter. This, in turn, may help advance mentees’ capacity to separate the science from the misinformation. As Joseph Polman Professor of Educational Psychology and Learning Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder wrote, “I have found that middle school and high school students can understand that different people can reach honest disagreements about what the “true story” is. This is an important prerequisite to understanding how different world views and “selecting preferred facts” leads to the kind of “spin” we see every day in U. S. politics. and participate thoughtfully and respectfully in debates about politics themselves. Students who have the experience of participating in civil and respectful debates according to their own ideas lay the groundwork for participating more productively in our democracy than many adults today.”
Perhaps through such conversations, mentors could respectfully convey that vaccinations have a long history of effectiveness and are not, in fact, just another topic of political debate. The scientific basis for vaccines is well-established and studies linking vaccines to autism or computer chip implants, for example, have been debunked. If vaccines had always been considered a topic of partisan debate, we’d still be wrestling with polio, measles and a host of other diseases that have been largely eradicated. As long as we remain respectful, conversations about vaccinations could be approached as opportunities for to begin a lifelong habit of engaging in authentic, scientifically-grounded conversations.