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Why Every Child Needs a Mentor

How to find a role model your kid can look up to

We often tell our kids, “Don’t talk to strangers.” To Carrollton father David Parnell, that adage couldn’t be further from the truth. Parnell is a volunteer mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters Lone Star.He says when it comes to developing social skills with adults, talking to strangers can be the right thing to do. “In safe environments, of course talk to strangers,” Parnell says. “It equips children to look for opportunities in unfamiliar situations rather than learning to approach those situations with fear. Healthy conversation with adults builds confidence.”

Parnell has been a “big brother” with Big Brothers Big Sisters for about 10 years. (And that’s not counting his early days volunteering to read at local schools.) Over the years, Parnell has had about half a dozen “little brothers”—some of those relationships spanning many years and some spanning a shorter period.

His current mentee is Qwanya, an eighth-grader with an insatiable appetite for science, whom Parnell has been mentoring for nearly four years. While mentors are often discussed in the context of at-risk and underprivileged children, surrounding any child with a role model who can share his or her wisdom and experience is beneficial—for both the kid and the mentor. “Qwanya has a brilliant mind,” Parnell says. “He made me smarter.”

Bigger Than Themselves

Parnell and Qwanya meet once a week at the boy’s school during lunch. Over snacks and goodies, they work on projects or watch educational videos. Thus far, the pair has constructed a wind turbine and built a replica R2D2. 

“I let Qwanya guide things,” Parnell says.

Giving children the reins empowers them to learn self-control and responsibility. “By making decisions, children learn to believe that they have some degree of control over outcomes,” he says. “By giving Qwanya the power of choice, my role is much more interesting too because I get to learn new things as a result of his curiosity.”

“Mentoring gives them a reason to aspire to something bigger than themselves,” says Linda Metcalf, director of graduate counseling programs at Texas Wesleyan University.

She adds that consistent time commitment is an important part of what makes great mentors—they need to be available for their mentees. “Mentors have time to answer questions [when] parents don’t have time,” she explains.

Dawn Hallman, executive director of the Dallas Association for Parent Education and an adjunct professor at Eastfield Community College, agrees that mentors can function as additional support for parents.

“Parenting is the hardest job you’ll ever do,” Hallman says. “Most of us need someone else to help us … sort the information that is coming through the fire hose, whether you want to think of it as a mentor, teacher or coach.” Parnell says, though, mentors should not be viewed as parental figures. “I can’t put my foot down with a child I’m mentoring,” he says. “There is a level of authority that is different.”

Metcalf agrees and says that makes the relationship a uniquely safe space for the child. “A mentor doesn’t have to discipline,” she says. “A mentoring relationship is a place where [a child] can relax.”

A Gift of Identity

There isn’t such a thing as the right age for a child to have a mentor. Parnell says his mentees are usually no younger than third and fourth grade, while Metcalf recommends middle school age and older since that is the prime age for a child’s self-discovery.

“We are in an age in which who we are and how we identify ourselves is important,” she says. “By providing mentors who can help [children] to recognize what fits them best, we give our kids a gift of identity. Then, when faced with social groups that may offer tempting, yet unhealthy opportunities to belong, [children] can make the choice that is right for them.”

Anyone can be a mentor, Metcalf says—a family member, a school teacher or a neighbor—but he or she should have interests that align with the child’s. The most important aspect to remember about a relationship between an adult mentor and a child mentee is that communication and relationship building are key.

“A good connection lasts a lifetime,” Metcalf says. “A mentor is always someone you can call.”