This week, the Forum delves into whether or not a mentor and youth should discuss politics. Discussing politics, religion, and world events can be difficult, especially when there are competing ideas about what is best for our country – ideas that are rooted in differing values, culture, and worldview. A good way for mentors to avoid such difficulties is to change the conversation and stay away from certain topics altogether. Yet there are other solutions, which might open new ways of thinking for young people. Mentors can start by developing an understanding of their mentees’ family’s circumstances, belief systems, and expectations. If mentors lack such sensitivity they can misuse their power with heavy-handed persuasion. Power differentials inherent in the ages and roles of adults and youth can widen when there are also differences in class and cultural backgrounds. Mentors may not even be aware of the social inequities driving these differentials or how these can play out in interpersonal relationships. Mentors may express beliefs or opinions that are at odds with the experiences, values, and beliefs of their mentees, creating conflict for the young person. They should thus strive to refrain from any sort of proselytizing, raise their own awareness of power dynamics in cross-age and cross-cultural relationships, and seek consultation from mentoring programs to effectively negotiate these differentials.
As long as they remain cognizant of these issues and power inequities, mentors’ capacity to engage in ideas can be used for good. I realized this when I was presenting findings from my research on Hurricane Katrina to a group of college students last week. From a straightforward discussion of the storm’s effects on low-income communities, a surprisingly profound discussion about poverty, race, and government arose. Explanations for why those left behind were poor, led to discussions about why so many of the poor in this country have, historically, been African American. We touched on how wealth can corrupt the political process, and what contributed to the miserable failure of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. We grappled with how immediate gestures of charity were no substitute for the long-term investments and citizen sacrifices needed to serve and protect all of our nation’s citizens.
Although a rarity in our overscheduled lives, conversations such as these can play a vital role in honing and improving young people’s mental abilities. The Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky described a “zone of proximal development” in which learning takes place for young people. Think of this zone as a psychological stretch: it’s beyond what a young person can do when thinking about an issue on his or her own but within the range of what he or she can do while under adult guidance. When stretched into this zone, youth’s own mental and emotional capacities can improve and grow. And, what is today a stretch can, in the future, become part of a young person’s own capability. Thus, it is when we, as mentors, parents, teachers, and other caring adults, grapple with young people around complex issues, that they can begin to think more clearly and critically about the world around them.
Unfortunately, Americans allot scant time for such free flowing conversations with youth. We are rapidly finding ways to substitute more time-intensive, face-to-face mentoring relationships with perfunctory emails. And, although having regular family meals is, according to a recent study, a strong predictor of better achievement scores, fewer than half of American families with children between the ages of 12 and 17 eat dinner together on a regular basis. Similarly, high-stakes testing at our nation’s school has given rise to dense curricular demands, leaving teachers and students with diminishing opportunities for the sorts of conversations and activities that would advance critical thinking. In general, adult and youth live in separate worlds that rarely converge. It’s not that adults don’t recognize the importance of connecting with today’s youth; the problem they face is a lack of time and opportunity. According to a recent Gallup poll, 75 percent of adults reported that it is “very important” to have meaningful conversations with children and youth outside their immediate families, yet fewer than 35 percent reported actually having any such conversations in the past year.
We should be protecting our nation’s youth. But what children need to be protected against is blind faith in their leaders, knee-jerk solutions, and admonishments to avoid critical analysis. If we can remain respectful of diverse opinions, and mindful of the power accorded mentors and other adults, we can and should view debates, elections, and other world events as opportunities to begin a lifelong habit of engaging in authentic conversation with young people. Critical thinking that challenges them to question and improve the status quo is the essence of the American spirit.