“Then a miracle occurs:” Why we need a better understanding of youth mentoring

by Jean Rhodes

Early in my career, I developed a conceptual model of youth mentoring that, to my surprise, has been a remarkably durable and useful heuristic. It has been applied to formal and natural mentoring relationships and used to explain everything from short-term, goal-focused relationships with classroom volunteers to lifelong bonds with devoted grandparents. The basic idea is that close mentoring relationships help to advance developmental processes (social-emotional, identity, cognitive) which, in turn, can promote a broad range of positive outcomes. The particular needs and circumstances of each youth dictate the particular pathways, as does the strength and consistency of the mentoring bond. Scholars have further delineated the pathways (Hagler, in press; Hurd et al., 2018; Miranda-Chan, 2016). Granted, in terms of  specificity, it has a cartoonish “Then a miracle occurs” quality to it. The particular sequence of “active ingredients” accounting for change is difficult to specify a priori in natural mentoring. Natural mentoring relations are often the byproduct of kinship, where propinquity and family imperatives are potent drivers of enduring, committed inter-generational bonds. Likewise, non-kin mentorships often arise from deeply shared interest (e.g., sports, science, arts) where, in addition to access and regular contact, an alchemy of luck, openness, and natural sympatico draws people together. Such relationships are well, natural– not developed in response to any particular program or funding prerogatives, logic models, or timeframes. 

The same can not be said of formal mentoring programs, which are designed to achieve specific goals, under specific conditions, using a set of  agreed-upon strategies. Such goals and techniques may vary widely, depending on the group being served and the desired outcomes. Even when the goal is simply to forge a friendship, there is typically a set of expectations and performance markers that, presumably, compel the various constituents (mentors, mentees, program staff, funders) to play their respective roles.  More recently, interventions have been introduced with impressive theoretical precision and fine-tuned strategies  (e.g., McQuillan et al., 2017; Weiler et al., 2017). But because different interventions target built on different theories and target such dramatically different populations, risks, processes, and outcomes, it is unrealistic to assume that any given conceptual model is sufficiently encompassing and unifying.

For this reason, the applicability of the conceptual model to formal mentoring interventions has diminished over time. Although many of us have benefited from natural mentoring, we should not expect the same flavor of relationships between strangers.  Of course close, enduring, transformative bonds do sometimes emerge in formal mentoring, but a service model should not be built around outliers.  Formal and natural mentoring relationships share the same mythical namesake, so we fall prey to conflating today’s volunteers with everyone from the Goddess Athena and our own particular champions to the diehard community-based mentors of yesteryear, whose intuitive, free-wheeling approach seemed to know no bounds.  Researchers (myself included) have contributed to the mythology. An influential American Journal of Orthopsychiatry piece (Li & Julian, 2012) described the ideal mentoring relationships as a reciprocal human interaction characterized by an enduring emotional attachment. As the authors argued, this attachment is the only “active ingredient” in mentoring programs, and the reason that interventions often produce weak outcomes is that they focus on what the authors describe as ‘‘inactive’’ ingredients that don’t promote developmental relationships like mentor incentives and training curricula. Although the myth that interventions seeded between strangers can routinely reproduce close, naturally occurring mentorships lives on, the field of formal mentoring is increasingly aligning with intervention science, where tightly stipulated training, curricula, and outcomes are the stock and trade.

All helping relationships, formal or natural, depend on some degree of empathy, authenticity, and positive regard. But continuing to tether formal interventions to a concept that so freighted with meaning, mythology, and expectation is a disservice.  It has led to undisciplined approaches, burdened volunteers with unrealistic expectations, dulled the conceptual and practical precision that is needed to effectively target underlying processes and outcomes, and slowed our alignment with broader scientific communities.  Breaking from the iconic natural mentoring mold will free us to see formal mentoring for what it is–a very promising intervention that can and should capitalize on all that prevention and intervention science has to offer.