A Single Parent’s Best Friend: A Mentor

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What messages am I sending my children about money, nutrition or spirituality?

Are they receiving a quality education?

Are they getting enough attention?

These are a few of the questions parents may ask about how effective their parenting is. The questions may be more worrisome if parents are single and don’t have adequate support.

Maybe I over-indulge my kids because I feel guilty about the divorce?

How are my kids really coping with the separation and divorce?

These were the kinds of questions I asked when I was a single mother for five years in between my first and second marriage. While I am grateful I have a partner now, a strategy I used when I was a single parent was to choose a mentor for my girls. She acted as a beloved adopted sister to them. She was a level-headed college student who spent time doing fun activities with my girls, and really listened to them. In doing so she became an important, emotionally available adult to them. Mentoring works for both the single parent and the child!

The modern concept of mentoring for positive outcomes with youth began in the 20th century in

juvenile justice and social work venues.  The mentoring movement organized in 1997 during the Summit for America’s Future, now known as America’s Promise, has Colin Powell as one of the founders and spokespersons. At the summit, the value of having caring adults in the lives of children to support issues of health, education and skills building for the future was emphasized.

In 2014, the White House renewed its endorsement of mentoring by launching the initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper,” an effort to expand mentoring services to improve outcomes for minorities, particularly minority males.  The Department of Education, for the purpose of their grantees, defines mentoring as “a structured and trusting relationship that brings young people together with caring individuals who offer guidance, support and encouragement aimed at developing the competence and character of youth being mentored,” according to Dr. Susan Weinberg of the Mentor Consulting Group.

In trying economic times, parents are busy with the business of surviving with multiple jobs and making ends meet.  Children spend increasing amounts of time in front of the television or computer, and less time interacting with adults. All youth need mentoring because all youth need role models to show them the ropes of successful adulthood.  In sociology, we call this “socialization.”  It takes place everywhere: at home, in school, and in the community at large.  Children need caring adults to help them prepare for adulthood.

In single parent households the issues of attending to children’s needs can be even more complicated. There may be less free time to interact or fewer opportunity for undivided attention, in large part due to the economic strain of living on one income. There is at least one less adult in the household to share the responsibilities of child rearing, and children may suffer behavioral consequences.

When Denise was 10 years old, she moved to a new school because her parents separated. She began to act out and received behavior reports from school.  She was able to register in her local afterschool program, the Boys & Girls Club, where she had attended summer camp several years in a row. They knew her well.

Due to all the changes in their lives, however, Denise’s mom did not sign her up for club activities until late in the semester. Denise had missed her club friends and staff. They all yelled out her name when she walked through the club doors after being away and the unit director, Karen, rushed over to give her a big hug. Denise felt that Karen really cared about her. 

She felt special, but everything was not totally right. Denise was still getting in trouble at school and even at the club activities after school.  Despite having missed her friends, Denise argued with them. As Denise’s mentor, Karen knew this wasn’t Denise’s usual behavior. Karen gave Denise a special assistant job doing tasks like making copies and answering phones in order to spend some extra time with her.

Karen shared the story of her own parents’ divorce and how she too felt frustrated and sometimes got angry without understanding why. She told Denise that it was okay to talk with her about it when that happened, but that it wasn’t okay to get herself into trouble at school.

The extra attention made a difference over time. Denise began to settle into her new routine over the next few weeks. Over time Karen saw her return to the fun loving, light hearted girl she knew from summer camp. Denise said, “Even though we really didn’t talk about what happened with my parents because I didn’t want to open up yet, I felt like Karen understood me.  She was on my side!” Denise’s negative behavior at the afterschool program and at school subsided because someone knew her and cared.

As a sociologist, I have researched and published work on what youth believe is effective in mentoring relationships. Effective mentoring programs involve the mentor (adult) and the mentee (youth) participating in fun activities, learning skills and solving problems together, and giving and receiving help in crisis.

In the case of Denise, Karen was present for Denise in her family crisis and it helped Denise resolve some of her feelings about her parents’ divorce. Even if the crisis is only a perceived one by the youth or teen, a strong adult presence tends to help youth avoid negative behavior, particularly self-destructive behavior. 

There are many types of mentoring, both informal and formal (purposed and intentional), including group mentoring, one-to-one mentoring, curriculum-based mentoring, and youth-led mentoring.  Youth in formal mentoring programs are less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as substance abuse, early sexual activity risking pregnancy, poor school performance, truancy, or even dropping out of school.

At the beginning of the national trend to formalize mentoring programs, a national research firm called Public Private Ventures found these positive outcomes for youth involved in formal mentoring programs:

  • 46% less likely to start using illegal drugs
  • 27% less likely to start drinking
  • 52% less likely to skip a day of school
  • 37% less likely to skip a class
  • Earn higher grades and feel better about school performance

After all, isn’t that what we want as parents?  For our kids to grow up safe, healthy and supported with the skills they need to make their way in the world? No parent does it alone. Sometimes a mentor can be a parent’s best friend. 

Laura Lyles Reagan, MS
About Laura Lyles Reagan, MS

Laura Lyles Reagan, MS is a sociologist, parenting journalist, parenting coach and mother of two teenaged daughters.

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