Who was your favorite mentor? Survey sheds light on youth’s “most meaningful” mentors

By Jean Rhodes

Although many young people have had multiple and even concurrent mentors there is often one mentor who stands out from all the rest. In MENTOR’s impressive recent survey of childhood mentoring experiences (N = 2,639), authors Michael Garringer & Chelsea Benning describe this mentor as “the one that we first think of when we think about the support of a caring adult, the one who we most thank for helping us along the journey to adulthood.” Adult respondents were asked to reflect on the their “most meaningful” mentor. Here are some highlights:

  • When asked to reflect specifically on these primary mentors, over 70% of individuals across generations felt that they owed a great deal of their personal success to these meaningful figures.
  • Natural mentors were three times more likely to be nominated than programmatic mentors, especially teachers, friends of the family, and extended family members. This is consistent with research that a smaller percentage of young people are assigned to formal mentors relative to natural mentors.
  • Schools were the most prominent source of formal mentors across all ages, but particularly for young adults. As the authors noted, “it is increasingly common, for example, for colleges to offer mentoring to incoming freshmen cohorts to help ease their transition onto campus.” Such programs can improve students’ sense of belonging and academic success in important ways (e.g., MentorPRO).
  • When asked about the things that those “most meaningful” primary mentors did to support them, “helped me solve problems” was the rated as the most important followed by “helped me to build a sense of belonging” and “helped me understand who I am as a person.” This aligns with research on the importance of striking a balance between goal-focused and relationship-building activities.
  • Finally, when asked about specific actions and approaches that these meaningful mentors took, here’s what topped the list: conveying acceptance, listening, building trust, and showing patience. These findings align with years of research on mentoring as well as child and adolescent therapy.

As our research has shown, blending problem solving with relationship building is vitally important. The best mentors take the time to listen, understand, and discover what really matters to young people. Everyone deserves a meaningful mentor and this important new report sheds important light on the actions and approaches that mentors can take to make a difference.