The mentoring paradox: Striking a balance in our work with youth

by Jean Rhodes

In recent months, I have joined the chorus of many of my colleagues (most notably Tim Cavell and Chris Elledge) in arguing that we have been so focused on building friendships and enduring ties that we have missed valuable opportunities to align with the fields of prevention and clinical science. There are several factors at play, but I suspect that the vocabulary of mentoring threw us off.  Many of our lives have touched deeply by natural mentors–those caring teachers, coaches, neighbors, aunts, and others who helped us in countless ways.  And, as our lives progress, different mentors fill different roles, until we eventually become those mentors, dispensing our own brand of hard-earned wisdom. We can’t prescribe who our mentors and mentees will be or when and where we’ll find them any more than we can prescribe true love. The reality is that formal mentoring has far more of the trappings of preventive and professional helping interventions than those natural, formative bonds of our youth. And, paradoxically, the harder our field has pushed to emulate the latter, the more we have diverged from rigorous approaches that would have raised the effectiveness of our programs.

In other words, by pushing the relationship lever too hard and placing far too light of a touch on structure and goals, we subverted the delicate equilibrium of effective relationships. But, as technology writer, Edward Tenner (2018), notes this  phenomenon is also common in medicine: “We know that the obsession with childhood hygiene, so popular since the early twentieth century, can weaken the immune system. We know that over-prescription of antibiotics can foster superbugs, that liberal use of opioids can reduce their effectiveness and encourage addiction, and that habitual reliance on sleeping pills can worsen insomnia. Few of us renounce medicine or pharmaceuticals, but we have a new respect for natural equilibria.” We also see this tension in community life, when freedom is pitted against the need to ensure equality, which requires constraints on more powerful interests (Rappaport, 1991; Schumacher, 1977). And it certainly runs through the helping professionals, when the values of intuition and community collaboration brush up against the need for structure, expertise, and definable goals. In mentoring, a close relationship is vitally important. But when it is construed as the only or main active ingredient, it creates unrealistic pressure–zapping it, paradoxically, of the closeness that can come when there is a sense of shared purpose.

When a car skids too far in one direction, gradual weaving is a better strategy than an abrupt overcorrection. Likewise, as we embark in the promising direction of more targeted, substantive, skills-based approaches, we should resist lunging too far from what sets us apart from pure tutoring, skills-training classes, i.e., the catalyzing role of a caring relationship. The goal will be to find that equilibrium, and a continued willingness to confront and correct when solutions become too one-sided.