Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


An Intentional Thread

As a new school year begins, so do important mentoring relationships

In their New York Times best-selling book, “An Invisible Thread” (Howard Books, 2011), Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski give life to an ancient Chinese proverb that inspired the book’s title. They document the story of an 11-year-old panhandler, Maurice, and a busy sales executive (author Laura), whose unplanned stewardship of the young boy’s life makes for dramatic and compelling evidence of the power of connection.

But not all such relationships need be nuanced by destiny.

Indeed, studies of “formal” mentoring, such as the kind found in Big Brothers Big Sisters programs, show that there is significant value in such relationships and universally point to the positive outcomes they engender. According to “Mentoring Programs and Youth Development: A Synthesis” from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, “warm and close relationships with caring adults, supervision, and positive role models are the common resources and investments that mentoring interventions contribute to youth development.”

Similarly, a study by Child Trends found that youth participating in mentoring relationships experience better academic returns, hold more positive attitudes about the future, and are less likely to initiate drug use than those who aren’t.

Even “informal” mentors—such as school teachers, coaches and counselors—hold considerable sway in the young lives they help to mold. With opening school bells ringing throughout the land, millions of young people are finding themselves the beneficiaries of mentoring by some of the most important adults in their lives, all of whom have made an intentional decision to educate, guide and mentor youth.

It is that very intentionality, and the commitment it represents, that make meaningful mentors true game changers for children and teens everywhere.

According to research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), 46 percent of teens with a mentor reported a high “sense of self,” versus 25 percent of teens without a mentor. High sense-of-self teens feel more positive about their own identity, growing independence, and relationships with peers than do teens with a low sense of self. Not insignificantly, they are also more likely to avoid alcohol and drug use.

So, what does a mentor look like? The characteristics young people ascribe to them include trustworthy, caring, understanding, respectful, helpful, dependable, fun, compassionate and responsible. Being a good listener and offering good advice are also seen as key skills of successful mentors.

More succinctly, “Being a mentor to someone does not mean you have to always know the right answer, just that you are always there when they need someone to lean on,” stated a 14-year-old ninth-grader. “Always” may be the operative word given that the Child Trends report also found that mentoring relationships can do more harm than good if they are “short-lived” or “sporadic” rather than “consistent” and “committed.”

Unfortunately, for some kids they may not exist at all.

Despite clear evidence of the positive effects of mentoring on youth, a fear of legal responsibility for misconduct by its employees is causing schools and youth organizations to develop standards limiting the contact that may make mentoring such an effective tool in the first place. For example, guidelines recommended by the National Education Association (NEA) describe as inappropriate professional behavior “taking students to lunch, outside social activities or receiving and writing personal notes.”

Further, a startling number of teens (53 percent) say their parents discourage them from participating in organizations or activities in which such mentoring might occur, including one in five who specifically cites parental concern for the teen’s personal safety when spending time with a mentor.

Can something so good really be so bad? Sometimes—but maybe not as often as we think. In fact, federal statistics do not support the notion that our children are facing increasing risk of harm. Nevertheless, parents are wise to be wary. Here are three simple steps to take to be sure your children remain safe:

1. Stay involved. Know with whom your child is spending time, where they are going, and what they are doing.

2. Get to know your child’s mentors. Working together will benefit your child and give you a better sense of his or her safety.

3. Encourage your child’s involvement only in organizations that conduct employee or volunteer screenings and/or criminal and sexual offender background checks.

According to the aforementioned proverb, “An invisible thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place and circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle. But it will never break.”

Such is also the case with the intentional threads woven at school.

Stephen Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is also a senior advisor to SADD and director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps. For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit

© Summit Communications Management Corporation 2013 All Rights Reserved

More from Stephen Gray Wallace
More from Psychology Today