10 Lessons I Learned From Mentoring

Mentors learn that you can’t change anyone: not even a troubled youth. But you can listen, and that can change everything.

One of the most rewarding experiences you can have is being a mentor for a child or young adult. Not only can you play a significant part in their life but you also learn a great deal about yourself. For a year I was a volunteer mentor to two young boys through an organization that is affiliated with the Police. One was aged 9 and the other 13. Both had committed crimes and the Police thought they were likely to reoffend.

The reason they went into the mentoring program is because they did not have good adult role models. The idea was that the mentors would spend an hour or two a week just spending time with these kids. We weren’t their parents and we weren’t their friends. We were an adult that was interested in them with no ulterior motive.

I learned a lot throughout the process, about them, about myself and about the idea of mentoring. Here are some of those things.

1. People just want someone’s attention. Some troubled children may be the classic case of an attention seeker, but on the whole I do not think this is the case. The classic attention seeker is doted on by his or her parents and is often an only child. They behave for attention when they don’t get it only because they are used to all eyes being on them.

Troubled children normally don’t get any attention at all from the adults in their lives. And if they do it is very often negative attention. All they want is for someone to just give them a little shred of their time. This is what the mentoring process is designed to do.

This is something all of us want. We may not be major attention seekers but we all need someone close in our lives who actually cares enough to show a little attention when we need it.

5. It’s more important to listen than to instruct.

2. Some people grow up in really horrible circumstances. I grew up with a reasonably sheltered life. My parents divorced when I was in my early teens but other than that my childhood went pretty smoothly. We all know that other people can grow up in horrible circumstances but for many people they only hear about it when they read the news and hear of the childhood background of the latest criminal.

Until you actually get close to someone with a seriously troubled childhood you never really know. And even then if you haven’t experienced it yourself you can never fully understand. But it is very eye opening to hear about some of the circumstances that children grow up in, even in what are considered to be affluent Western cities.

While as adults we cannot live our lives by blaming others for our problems and have to take responsibility, it is good to understand that some people are given a serious disadvantage in life due to a tough childhood. In the end people have to help themselves but it is good to understand and have compassion.

3. It’s amazing what a little bit of caring can do. Mentoring programs have been shown to work. What this tells me is that if people are shown a little bit of selfless caring then amazing things can happen. So often we expect something back when we give our time and love away to other people. It is not often that we truly give ourselves selflessly.

I got nothing from the experience other than the experience itself and the kids knew this. They knew I didn’t have an agenda and that I was just there to help out. That is why they opened up.

4. Everybody is doing their best. Troubled children aren’t trying to be trouble. It is a cry for help. Bad parents don’t set out to be bad parents. Sometimes despite their best efforts things go awry and sometimes they actually have no idea that they are doing a poor job of raising their children. They are just raising their kids they same way they were raised.

People may fail at a lot of things at life and their actions may seriously hurt other people. But unless someone has a serious mental disorder or does something in a fit of rage most people do not maliciously intend harm on other people.

It is something worth understanding when somebody wrongs us. When you understand this it is easier to show compassion and turn the other cheek.

5. It’s more important to listen than to instruct. The worst thing you could do as a mentor is to try and tell your mentee what to do or what they were doing wrong. That was not the idea. The idea was just to be there for them as someone on their side. Listen to them but not instruct them.

Many human relationships become a power game. This relationship is designed not to be a power game but to be a relationship of mutual respect. It is amazing how much you can help someone if you just listen to them instead of trying to tell them what to do.

6. You can’t help someone, you can only help them to help themselves. Too often in life we try and fix other people’s problems when what the other person really wants is support. Men are wired to try to fix problems and often offer helpful solutions when a woman comes to them with a problem. But when a woman comes to you with a problem she doesn’t want a solution, she just wants you to listen to the problem and support her.

It is the same when you are mentoring a child. They don’t want you to fix their problems and you couldn’t do it if you tried. Only they can deal with it, but they need support. Children don’t know it yet, but only they can change themselves.

7. Trust is more important than skill, ability or knowledge. As long as the mentee can trust the mentor that is all that matters. They are not interested in how smart you are, what you know or what you can do for them. They just want to know that you are there for them.

As I said you cannot fix other people’s problems for them. Even if you are a psychiatrist all you can do is help people help themselves. Based on that truth trust is crucial. In any human relationship trust is the most important thing because it is the foundation that everything else is built upon.

8. Sometimes men don’t need to talk, they just need the company of other men. Men do not always like to talk about their problems in the same way women do. But they like the companionship just the same. You an show support to another male just by spending time with him. That is why activities that don’t require talking are great, like fishing. You can talk if you want but you don’t have to. Just being there is enough.

9. You can’t force someone to confront their problems. People can be carrying around some serious demons and baggage. Even if you know that their lives will improve if they just confront it you cannot make somebody do this. When the time is right they will confront it themselves. Trying to force it along just creates resistance and you lose that person’s trust.

They will think that you only want them to deal with their issues because it is easier for you. If you support them unconditionally then you will leave them free to deal with their demons at their own pace.

10. You cannot treat other people’s issues as an inconvenience to you. Sometimes other people’s issues seem inconvenient. But if you treat someone like this it just belittles their suffering and doesn’t help. If you are truly compassionate then you will never treat someone’s suffering as an annoyance for you.

You need to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and ask yourself how you would feel if those close to you found your problems as something that gets in the way.


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 Image of grandfather and grandson courtesy of Shutterstock

About Brad Alexander

Brad runs a site that helps young men navigate the murky transition from boyhood to manhood in the modern world. His website Badass Young Men talks about insecurity, sex and relationships, masculinity and taking charge of life.

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