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Want to Be Happy? Mentor

Mentoring (and being mentored) as kids and adults brings remarkable benefits.

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Mentoring comes naturally to us.
Source: Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Who doesn’t want a mentor? A long and consistent relationship with an experienced person who wants to develop me sounds amazing. Or how would it sound to be that wiser person, sharing what you’ve got to bring someone younger along? January is Mentoring Month, so I called the founder of the The Mentor Project .

“Mentoring is something that comes naturally to us as we hit midlife and later. In fact, we are built to do this,” explains Deborah Heiser, Ph.D., a psychologist and aging specialist.

“What is the role of a mentor?” I asked.

She explained, “In midlife, we reach a stage called Generativity, which means we care for others without expecting anything in return. We have a desire to leave our legacy — to make a mark on the world. Mentoring is one way of doing this. Most younger people I speak with say they really want a mentor. But they often feel like they are a burden to a mentor.”

No one wants to be a burden

What are the benefits of having a mentor? They are obvious, particularly for the age-group who are figuring out who they are and settling into careers. But what younger people “don’t know is that mentors benefit as much if not more than the mentees. In fact, the mentors I’ve spoken with get energized by their mentees. They are anything but a burden. Mentors, as they guide and teach someone, feel a sense of productivity. They feel that their lives and the skills and talents they’ve honed over a lifetime are valued, and that they are making a difference in the world…This is exactly what we crave in midlife. The feeling that our lives matter,” Heiser went on.

“This is how mentorship and generativity work…when we feel connected to others and connected to the world, we find an inner meaning that is more powerful than money or possessions.”

We often think of mentoring as something experienced older adults do for younger adults, or even adults for kids. But what about kids mentoring kids?

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When Kids Mentor Kids
Source: Photo by Rachel on Unsplash

When Kids Mentor Kids

My own experience with mentoring began in high school. When I was 16 years old, I thought it might be a good idea to start a tutoring program for my high school. My guidance counselor loved it, but we did not have a faculty sponsor. I do not know if the tutoring program continued after I graduated, and it was only slightly successful while I was there. I think about three kids total signed up to be tutors.

My guidance counselor loved the idea and immediately paired me with a freshman boy who was struggling in math. It was the 1990s, and he was way too cool for math or tutoring. When he rolled his eyes the first time, I was convinced I would fail. Half way through our first session he threw his pencil down and declared, “I’m so stupid. I’m too stupid for math. I’m never gonna learn this.”

I do not remember what I said to keep him engaged, but I do remember we persisted. I showed him how to do the problem by breaking it down into simple steps. I explained how each step worked and guided him to try. After an hour, he suddenly looked at me with a gleam in his eye. “I get it,” he said and grinned. He immediately started pretending he didn’t care about school again, but I had seen what I had seen.

We worked together a few more times and he came up the learning curve rapidly. I could not express my happiness the day he said to me, “I think I might be good at math.” I tried to be cool about it. We were very cool in the 90s.

This was a tutoring experience, but it was even more a mentoring experience. I do not remember what words I said all these years later, but I remember the feelings I had: the insistence that I was not going to let him fail, not going to let him believe he was stupid. My growing conviction that not only could he do it, he was very far from stupid.

Most of all I remember how it changed me. It was my first experiences of purposeful, individual connection with the intention to help and encourage a younger person. It taught me that I could make a difference.

Is it important to mentor while we are young?

Heiser tells me that becoming generative later in life requires empathy and a desire to give back, but that this doesn’t happen out of nowhere. “We can increase the likelihood of this happening by participating in civic engagement when we are young.”

As a pediatrician, my patients have been sharing their experiences as volunteers, eagle scouts, and as members of clubs trying to improve our world for years. One of the more interesting programs I’ve heard of happens at Waubonsie High School in Aurora, IL.

Brooke Mathews is 15 years old and she started working with the Special Olympics this fall, and then quickly joined Best Buddies, an after school club. In each of these activities she works with special needs kids from her high school.

“When I joined Special Olympics I thought a lot about my studies, and I was trying to get more involved to get into a better school for college applications and stuff. But once I joined Special Olympics every Monday and Tuesday after school for two hours it was the highlight of my day. I look forward to it so much. And then I realized that it's something I'm really passionate about."

“It’s really rewarding when you're trying to teach them how to do something and they're not getting it. And finally, they do get it and they get so happy and so excited that they can do something like that. And they give you a hug."

“I’ve discovered that I’m a lot more patient than I thought I was. It takes a lot of time to work with special needs kids and teach them how to do things and sometimes it can feel impossible. But I’ve learned it takes time, and you need to be patient, but you’re definitely going to get somewhere. I feel like a leader and I need to be patient and I learn from them and they learn from me.”

Then she told me about best buddies, where she was matched with her buddy, a girl with special needs. “I’ve learned to be more accepting. My buddy was really shy at first and I’ve learned that there are some people you have to get to know. At the first meeting I was really stressed out because I thought my buddy didn’t like me, but I’ve realized that there is a lot more to it. I realized that we’re not that different, and there’s a lot of parts of my life that I can relate to hers, and a lot of parts of her life that she can relate to mine. It’s really awesome to learn more about her.” Brooke tells me that she now wants to study special education.

In addition to all this growth in awareness and maturity, Brooke shared that Best Buddies club has become a shelter from the intense stress of the great school district she attends. “This is a group where I feel so accepted, and high school is very hard. I learned so much from this, I probably learned the most that it doesn't matter. Like, what you look like, or how you act. It’s more like you can be a part of something no matter what, there's always something that's going to be for you.”

In a time when those of us who care for children’s mental health and development are deeply concerned about building their resilience and addressing the rapidly rising rates of stress and anxiety, Brooke’s story felt very important. I wondered how her experience as a kid mentoring another kid would affect her later.

Mentoring benefits both mentor and mentee
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Mentoring during adolescence impacts our future.

Olivia Mossides helped me answer that question. She graduated from high school in 2016 and began participating in Special Olympics and Peer Partners when she was 16. She told me that she noticed the kids she was paired with felt more included and had lunch with their peer partners. It gave them time to spend outside of their adaptive classrooms, and Olivia noticed they went out of their comfort zone more. “They showed more confidence talking to people,” she told me.

Olivia explained that she learned not to take things for granted when she watched what it was like for someone to do things people would consider inappropriate, simply because they didn’t know. “You would think they should know that by this age, but they just didn’t.” She learned how to break something down for them and help them with coping skills so they could start on a task. While she had always loved special needs kids, Olivia did not see herself as a teacher. Peer partners was where Olivia learned about speech pathology as a career option, which she has been studying for the past two years in college.

But Gretchen Farmer had no intention of studying special education, although she had friends who did Peer Partners who are studying this in college right now. Gretchen explained that Peer Partners was actually an alternate physical education class that she used to meet her PE credit. She was paired with a peer partner and one special needs student. “It’s adaptive PE, and we helped them do whatever sport we were doing. My favorite was swimming.” She learned to work with her peer partner as they tried to encourage and help their special needs student to do his swimming therapy while they splashed around with him.

“I saw it less as a mentoring experience and more as a friendship experience. We got to hang out with them and work on their social skills and communication skills. We got to be their friends, encourage them to have conversations with people and just share about themselves. You could be having the worst day but you could walk in there and they would automatically put a smile on your face. They were amazing people and I had so much fun.”

At first Gretchen couldn’t see a connection between her Peer Partners experience and her college studies. But suddenly she said, “I’m studying engineering to make a difference in the world and help other people through what I can do. The class did open my heart exponentially.”

How can adults get started mentoring?

When Bill Cheswick, the inventor of the Firewall, met Deborah Heiser, he said, “We need to get old farts like myself into schools to teach kids.” He desperately wanted to teach kids as young as 7 years of age before they start to think they aren’t good in science and math or they decide that science, tech and math are only for nerds. He wanted to make STEM cool — to inspire kids with the stuff he loves and made a career of. So, Heiser founded The Mentor Project and found there are many people like Bill, who are thrilled to see kids inspired by their knowledge and expertise. They love passing on their passion to the next generation. Bill and the others know they are leaving a legacy and forming the next generation. “It is more powerful than I ever imagined it could be. I’ve learned that we all know the benefits of having a mentor, but I’ve also learned that the benefits of being a mentor are as great if not greater,“ says Heiser.

"What we know about mentoring is that it matters to positive youth development," wrote Marilyn Price-Mitchell in 2013. Her post explores six qualities that make you a good mentor for teens .

©Alison Escalante MD


Dan McAdams - McAdams, D. P., & Guo, J. (2015). Narrating the generative life. Psychological Science, 26, 475-483.

McAdams, D. P. (2013). The psychological self as actor, agent, and author. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8, 272-295.