By: Jean Rhodes
“It is extraordinarily difficult to love children in the abstract, to devote oneself exclusively to the next generation. It is only through precise, attentive knowledge of particular children that we become – as we must – informed advocates for the needs of all children” (Margaret Mead, 1972).
As the wealth gap continues to widen, we’ve seen growing rates of childhood poverty, trauma, violence, dropout, and incarceration. Four in ten American children are growing up in low-income families and much higher rates are found in many cities. From this vantage point, our efforts to improve mentoring relationships can feel almost inconsequential. But I remain convinced that there are broader social and political implications to our work that position us to be better youth advocates.
First, mentoring provides a lens through which literally millions of middle-class adults have seen the ravages of poverty: decrepit schools with stressed teachers, unsafe neighborhoods, deteriorating housing, and other difficult circumstances. Although many Americans may already know that many children in our wealthy democracy live in poverty, this inequality somehow remains compartmentalized and largely ignored in our day-to-day lives. Yet, deeply connecting with one child in poverty through a mentoring relationship can illuminate its pernicious effects, potentially mobilizing more sustained authentic action. When middle-class mentors bear witness to caring that exists in families, religious institutions, and grassroots community organizations, and to the level of commitment that many low-income parents marshal in support of their children, it remains much more difficult to blame the victim
Second, mentoring programs provide an accessible context for growing numbers of American high school and college students to perform public service and engage in a world that extends beyond their immediate family and friendship circles. Since early civic participation is the best predictor of lifelong commitment, mentoring can provide an important training ground for future volunteerism.
Third, as Colin Beavin pointed out in his wonderful Chronicle post, there are even potential environmental benefits of mentoring. Indeed, a growing number of environmentalists have suggested that, since each additional person puts new strains on the planet, smaller families could play an important role in reducing carbon emissions. Although most adults are fiercely committed to their own children, only a small proportion connect in meaningful ways with young people outside their nuclear families (Scales, 2005). Limiting the size of families, while opening our hearts more fully to caring for other people’s children, would dramatically enrich the lives of countless young people while reducing our collective carbon footprint (Weisman, 2007).
I do believe that, because mentoring affords us, in Mead’s words “precise, attentive knowledge of particular children,” it is vitally important on many levels. It makes us “informed advocates for the needs of all children.”