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Why Every Child Needs a Mentor

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

January is National Mentoring Month. Sign up to be a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sister Lone Star and learn more at bbbstx.org/be-a-big about how bigs work together to ensure positive outcomes for local youth.

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.”

How To Find a Mentor

1. Start with your kid’s interests, says Linda Metcalf, director of graduate counseling programs at Texas Wesleyan University. “Find out who your child is” she says. “Find out what he or she likes.” Once you determine your child’s interests, you know what type of role model to look for.

2. Seek out mentors in the communities you are most familiar with—for example, your church, your child’s school, his or her sports team and the local community centers. “School counselors are a great resource,” Metcalf says.

3. Do your homework on the mentor, advises Dawn Hallman, executive director of the Dallas Association for Parent Education. “Where is [the mentor] located?” she says. “What are his or her credentials? What qualifies this person? What are his or her values?”

Your child’s school and organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters will vet volunteer mentors. David Parnell, a Carrollton father who mentors through Big Brothers Big Sisters Lone Star, says they do thorough screenings. “As a parent, I’d want someone who is that diligent,” he says. If you get stuck, Hallman recommends asking other parents because they know who to trust. “Parents talk to parents. Keep your eyes open and check it out.”

Be a “Big” with Big Brothers Big Sisters

According to BBBS Lone Star, 98 percent of children involved in their program were promoted to the next grade level or graduated after being matched for 6 months or more, and 93 percent improved or maintained good standing in academic performance.

To become a Big, volunteers can apply at bbbstx.org/be-a-big. The ideal Big has a passion for the community, enjoys working with kids and has time to commit to the program. After a thorough background check, the mentor is matched with a Little in their community to meet up with them two-to-four times a month doing activities the two enjoy. There are also other core mentoring opportunities available depending on the volunteer’s schedule.

All Bigs are background and referenced checked, interviewed and receive on-going training and support. A Match Support Specialist will then find the right Big for a child based on personality, likes, dislikes, background, age and location of the Big to the child. When a child is matched, the parent/guardian is notified and given an in-depth profile of the Big to approve.

Enroll Your Child with BBBS

For those wishing to enroll their child, applications are available bbbstx.org/sign-up-a-child. Youth ages 6 – 16 can enroll and must be capable of benefiting from a relationship with a Big. They must also want a Big and understand the role of a mentor, as well as have a parent/guardian willing to be a partner with BBBS Lone Star by maintaining contact and keeping the organization informed of changes within the family/match. Once matched in the program, youth can remain with their mentor under BBBS support through their graduation from high school and into their post-secondary education.

There are also opportunities, such as the BBBS Amachi Program, for children with a family member who has been or is currently incarcerated, on parole or on probation, who need additional support and guidance due to these circumstances. The program connects children with role models from all walks of life.

RELATED: Raising Fatherless Kids

This article was originally published in May 2018.

Image: iStock