Which young people have access to informal mentoring?

Gowdy, G., Miller, D. P., & Spencer, R. (2020). Expanding and deepening our understanding of  which young people are most likely to have an informal mentor. Children and Youth Services Review, 108, 104490. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2019.104490

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Approximately 50% of young people do not have an informal mentor
  • There’s a lack of research that focuses on identifying the discrepancies between people in mentoring relationships and people who are not in any mentoring relationships
  • The present study aims to better understand which young people are more likely to be in an informal mentoring relationship
  • Data was used from the Panel Study on Income Dynamics (PSID)
    • PSID was a longitudinal study that gathered data, that concerned various things (such as financial security), from 5,000 families 
    • PSID administered a supplementary survey, called the Childhood Retrospective Circumstances Study (CRCS), which examined the childhood experiences of adult PSID participants
  • Findings indicate that an individual’s demographic information, social capital, and family resources influence whether or not that person has a mentor or not
  • This research contributes to the growing literature on young people’s access to informal mentoring 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

There has been much enthusiasm in the past decade around informal mentoring (naturally occurring relationships with caring non-parental adults) as a way to promote positive outcomes for young people. This enthusiasm is motivated by empirical studies boasting positive effects and has resulted in intervention development around how to promote these relationships for young people. Both the studies and interventions, however, are restricted by a limited literature base on key differences between mentored and non-mentored young people. This article seeks to contribute to this limited literature by (1) confirming previously-tested attributes with a newly applied database and (2) using social capital to help theorize as to why some young people have this important resource and others do not. This study uses the Panel Study on Income Dynamics’ Childhood Retrospective Circumstances Study (CRCS) and a series of logistic regressions to find that demographics, family resources, and access to social capital are associated with having a mentor. Implications for both researchers and practitioners are discussed.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Over two thirds of young people in our study had an informal mentor, a rate notably higher than previous research, that found that around half of young people had informal mentoring (Bruce & Bridgeland, 2014). Our study findings indicate that whether young people have informal mentors is correlated with demographic factors, family resources and access to social capital.

Across all of the uncontrolled and controlled models and across the three dependent variables, non-Hispanic Black younger women, those who raised by their biological mother and a social father, and those who grew up in the South or West were more likely to have an informal mentor. While the finding related to gender is consistent with previous work (Erickson et al., 2009), these other demographic findings are of note. As stated previously, the literature is inconsistent with respect to whether non-Hispanic Black respondents or non-Hispanic White respondents are most likely to have a mentor (see Zimmerman et al., 2005 versus McDonald & Lambert, 2014). Our findings, that non-Hispanic Black respondents have 41% higher odds of reporting a mentor, align with Zimmerman et al.’s work. Future studies should more carefully examine the source of this apparent inconsistency in the literature. Further, our study demonstrates that having a biological mother and social father is associated with a 40% increase in the odds of being mentored, in comparison to those that were raised by both biological parents. It may be the presence of a social parent (father) affords a young person access to a more diverse network of social networks (and thus opportunities for informal mentorship) than would be the case for young people living with two biological parents. This finding suggests that researchers should look more carefully at how they define family structure and the role that particular family structures may play in predicting informal mentorship. Finally, the significant regional variation emphasizes the idea that which young people receive mentorship is not only due to their micro- and mezzo-level contexts, but may also be influenced by broader cultural variations across the country. Future research needs to consider the role of place and how this may matter in establishing these types of helpful relationships with adults.

Family resources and social capital mattered as well. Although family resources were not predictive of having a relative mentor, those participants whose parents were highly educated were more likely to have non-relative mentors, a finding similar to previous studies (Erickson et al., 2009). Surprisingly, however, those who struggled financially throughout childhood were also more likely to have a non-relative mentor. This finding raises questions about the role that family resources play in promoting informal mentorship and indicates that more varied measures of family resources, beyond parental education, should continue to be examined. Additionally, this finding suggests that there may be different types of mentors, some of which are more available for advantaged young people, while others may be more available to financially disadvantaged young people. Future research should address this concern by establishing the types of mentors that young people have and then exploring if there are different sets of predictive variables for each. Finally, we cannot rule out the possibility that measurement error may have led to the counterintuitive finding that both higher parent education and struggling financially in childhood were associated with greater likelihood of informal mentorship. While parental education is an objective measure, financially struggling in childhood is a subjective measure and thus more prone to recall bias.

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