While we continue to empower young girls, we may be leaving boys behind. But research shows they are taking their own lives and committing crimes at higher rates. Mentorship may be the help they need.

By Christine Michel Carter
March 19, 2020
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Our society has made great strides to empower females, but that's come at a price. I know as a single mom, I've been so consumed with female empowerment and equality for my 8-year-old girl that I've often overlooked my 5-year-old son.

Studies from the past two decades confirm that our focus on young girls can leave boys behind when it comes to their education and well-being. A way to fix that is to encourage young boys to find mentors—or a trusted adult that they can turn to for guidance and advice. Youthmentor.org reports one out of every three young people in America is growing up without a mentor. Of those young people without mentors, 9 million face daily challenges that "put them at-risk for falling off track."

Our boys are struggling to survive in a society that has become increasingly isolated and phobic, exacerbated by technology, social media, and a culture of bullying and violence. A positive mentor may be the answer.

Why Boys Need Mentors

Men die by suicide nearly four times more often than women. And boys ages 10-17 commit more crimes than girls within the same age range, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. One could argue our young boys often need more emotional support than girls. A form of emotional support recommended by educators, psychologists, and other #boymoms is mentorship.

Unlike a role model—a person someone can look up to or aspire to be like without knowing personally—a mentor builds an intimate relationship and invests their time and resources into seeing a child succeed.

"Role models are important because they show young people, especially marginalized populations, that they can be successful. They provide hope and motivation, which is vital," says Tim Klein, award-winning urban educator, clinical therapist, and school counselor based in Berkeley, California. "However, role models don't often work directly with young people. Mentors are different because they provide ongoing support for people as they navigate life's journey."

"Low-income students of color need an adult in their life that says, 'I believe in you, and I am going to push you to become your best self,'" says Klein. "Adolescents rise or fall to the expectations we set for them; mentors can ensure that we are constantly seeing the best in young people and pushing them to become their best selves."

Another reason mentorship is important for young boys is it can help them understand and express their feelings, according to Frederick Marx, film producer, director, and co-writer of the critically acclaimed documentary Hoop Dreams, a basketball film about two black teenage boys who battle social and physical obstacle.

"Boys face all kinds of negative influences—cultural baggage—from peers and parents and coaches and others that tell them it's not OK to express themselves," says Marx. "They need mentors to find their way to a meaningful self-portrait of mature masculinity—one that is consistent with who their emerging selves truly are."

This becomes clear through MaryAnne Howland, a single mother from Nashville, Tennessee, who documents her journey of finding her 12-year-old son Max a mentor after he threatened suicide in her book Warrior Rising: How Four Men Helped a Boy on His Journey to Manhood. She explains he was constantly bullied and started complaining about going to school. He also refused to open up to her about his feelings.

"I recognized that he needed to be able to talk to someone who could understand, who he trusted and respected," she writes. "When he finally could speak to men who did understand and could answer questions that he thought he could not ask of me, Max found his superpowers and began to transform into the hero he wants to be."

Max's mentors, explains Howland, encouraged him to be responsible, righteous, respectful, and to persevere without letting excuses hold him back. They also helped Max learn the importance of respecting women and helped him avoid toxic masculinity. The mentors allowed him to learn the "distinction between sexual desires and authentic relationships with women, that women are not to be objectified." They did this by speaking about how they chose their own mates.

Her son celebrated milestones in his life with his mentors—like finding a date for and going to prom—and these moments served as clear markers on the journey to manhood, or rites of passage. Not having positive figures during a transition to manhood can result in abuse to women, self-harm, or adolescence prolonged as far as into their 40s.

How to Help Your Son Find a Mentor

Experts say it's important to explain to kids the benefit and purpose of youth mentoring. And stepping in to help your kid find a mentor is a good idea, as long as you're able to understand what your child needs and is looking for.

A good mentor should believe in their mentee, says Klein. Yet being a cheerleader for a young person is not enough. The mentor must also have resources that one can take advantage of. "It can be information, such as knowledge about the college process, or career information. It can be social, where the mentor can connect adolescents to other opportunities and resources they wouldn't have otherwise had. Or it can be technical, like if a mentor can teach them to code, or help them be a better writer—that is huge," says Klein.

Always ask the following questions about a potential mentor: What resources do they have? Do they know a lot of people? Have they found success in school, or in a career, or in a community project?

Parents should expand their definition of who a mentor could be. "If the local barber genuinely cares about kids and also has experience and insights on running a small business, he could be a great mentor. The same can be said for a librarian, crossing guard, or any person in the community," explains Klein. "Look for people who are contributing to your community; more often than not, those people will be the best mentors."

But keep in mind, mentors are only effective if young boys believe in them. It's impossible to force a mentoring relationship; it takes time, energy, and consistency to show a young person that a potential mentor is worthy of their trust. Bottom line: Young men should be part of the process of finding mentors in their community.

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