Mentor: Fancy Name For Grown-Ups Kids Need

mentor, role model, adult pals for kids, children in the neighborhood, real work for kids,

image courtesy of LisaW123’s Flickr photostream

The little boy just wanted to “do stuff.”

His parents let him traipse around with his wagon on garbage collection day. He’d take home pieces of wood, carefully pulling out nails to store in a can, so he and his friends would have the necessary materials to build forts or go-carts. Occasionally he found small engines that he’d do his best to fix. No one intervened to tell him his pursuits weren’t safe, although he was expected to clean up any mess as well help around the house.

His neighbors didn’t mind having this kid appear whenever they did something interesting—fix a car, build a shed, tend a greenhouse full of plants, run a garage sale. He was eager to learn and even more eager to help, so they did what adults have done throughout time. They shooed him away occasionally but mostly they shared what they knew.

He made use of what he learned. By the time he was 12 or 13 years old, these neighbors let him take on their home and car repairs, recognizing he was able to do a more exacting job than they might have done themselves. He gained more than skills from the adults in his life. He may have been leaning over a car hood with Clyde, but he was also learning how to understand the function of each system by paying attention. It seemed he was only helping Mr. Christman with the heavy tasks of operated a greenhouse but he was also taking in something important about growing old with dignity. It appeared he was working alongside his grandfather but he was also seeing how reputation, honesty, and treating each person with respect builds a small business.

Because he developed richly rewarding relationships with people of all ages, relatives as well as neighbors, he had plenty of examples to draw on as he matured. He saw how different people handled decisions, disciplined their children, laughed off trouble, solved problems, stayed in love.

His experience was rare. It’s becoming rarer all the time.

Throughout nearly all of their childhood and teen years our kids are segregated in day care, school, sports, and other activities. Even when they benefit from the very best programs, if they’re restricted to the company of same-aged peers doing what adults consider educational and enriching they are deprived of the riches found through fully engaging in the wider world. This subverts the way youth have matured throughout human history, when children learned right in the context of family and community—freely able to watch, imitate, and foster relationships with people of all ages.

We put kids in an oddly uncomfortable position when most adults in their lives are focused on them. Children want to center themselves, not have adult attention centered on them. Kids long to model themselves after adults who are engaged in meaningful, interesting, and useful activities of their own. When their experience of adults is limited to those who are there to care for, educate, or entertain children (important callings but not all that adults can do) the dynamic is shifted. The age-old desire to gain mastery and take on responsibility, eagerly becoming a capable adult, doesn’t have the same pull.

There are plenty of educational initiatives to bridge this gap, particularly for teens. These programs connect students with mentors or bring community members into schools to talk about their careers. While these efforts are admirable, such stopgap measures aren’t the way young people learn best. They need to spend appreciable time with people of all ages—observing, conversing and taking on responsibility. Real responsibilities, real relationships.

How can we remedy this?

That little boy? He grew up to be a remarkably capable, beautifully open-hearted, and endlessly positive person. I married him.

mentor, building competence through imitation, children at work,

19 thoughts on “Mentor: Fancy Name For Grown-Ups Kids Need

  1. I really enjoyed your post, and totally agree.
    When I was a kid and broke stuff, instead of being told off, I was shown how to fix it. Whether it was horse tack or a toy, it didn’t matter. I had knowledgeable adults around who showed me how.
    I’m very grateful my dad and my granddad took the time to show me how to repair my own tack. Okay, it wasn’t as pretty as it could have been, but I learned a valuable lesson along with the stitching: Don’t throw it, fix it.
    Today, I have a saddler’s awl, thread, beeswax, needles (blunt and pointed, round and straight) and a small saddler clam in my tack box. Not only is it a useful skill that is becoming very rare, but it’s saving me a lot of money too. (Take a bridle to a saddler and get them to fix the throat latch loop that’s hanging off — see what they’ll charge you.) Plus, I know my tack is safe and secure when I’m out.
    One of the boys at the yard is taking an interest whenever I fix something for someone, and I’m taking the time to pass on what I know, and let him get some hands on experience. He’s loving it.
    That’s the way forward, not occupational therapy, not making them do something they don’t want to do and are bored with. If they are interested, show them. It’s just that simple and it goes a long way.


    • You’ve really hit on the gist of engaged learning Silke. “If they are interested, show them.”

      I think dis-engaging kids from the real work and meaningful relationships available right in their neighborhoods and communities doesn’t just disadvantage young people, it sets our society ajar. Adults naturally want to share what they know. I learned from taking groups of homeschoolers to spend time with chemists, potters, business operators, chefs, blacksmiths, engineers, all sorts of professionals, that these adults felt honored to pass along a bit of their knowledge. Many of them carried negative impressions of today’s youth. By the end of our time together they were praising the kids for their insightful questions, the enthusiasm shown, and the depth of interest. They were saying things like, “come back in a few years, we could use an intern like you” and “I’ve never had this much fun at work.” It saddens me to think how profoundly kids and adults are segregated.


  2. Your second to last paragraph really struck a chord with me. I have been feeling guilty about pursuing some personal interests now that my daughter is five years old. I see that focusing all of my attention on her and not exploring my own interests is not necessarily the best way to model a happy and well rounded person. Thank you for the wonderful post! I followed your comment from Peter Gray’s article and found your blog.


    • Thanks Lee.

      I suspect the way we typically interact with kids (playing with, instructing, directing, reminding, cautioning) is unbalanced. There are reams of studies out there indicating that when adults become overly directive or even overly helpful, that they stymie a child’s natural curiosity and drive to learn on their own. One study looked at children figuring out a new toy. If an adult showed the child how the toy worked, even if they showed them incorrectly, the child’s interest waned and she made no attempt to play with the toy in clever and creative ways. When adults didn’t get involved, the child’s interest remained high as she figured it out on her own, often coming up with novel ways to use it.


  3. It is a remarkably fun thing to be singing along with my kids and then sing “but you shouldn’t hit your brother…” right in the middle of the song–then everyone laughs. My kids are remarkably comfortable talking with adults and asking them questions about what/why they are doing. I would caution that with some things the adult *does* need to provide some instruction; or find someone who can! Playing musical instruments, for example. But the “play” aspect is important too, which is why I encourage my kids to play around after they have done their music assignments.


    • Becky, you and me both. Around here we make up song lyrics pretty regularly, mostly to poke fun at each other as in songs about how bad a brother’s socks smell. You’re right, of course, there’s a place for instruction. I think the importance of the example I cited is that when children seek out instruction eagerly they’re much more likely to learn, remember, and benefit from it.


  4. Also *mentoring* is the huge buzzword/trend in the entrepreneurial world these days. If only these Silicon Valley types realized that what works for them (one-on-one guidance) would be terrific for their children *serving time* in school!


  5. Love this post.
    I’ve also been thinking about the role that objects play in this disconnect; we leave kids to their “playrooms” and toys, the objects that our culture has sanctioned for their use.
    But isn’t the point to let them play with and gain an appreciation for/understanding of the objects of the adult world? Tools, kitchenware, art, craft/building materials, as well as objects of the past.


  6. Wonderful post, and so true. And, not only do the young people gain so much from the wisdom of the elders, the older generation also gains much from the enthusiasm of the younger. I’m inspired to make sure my children have plenty of mentors in their lives.


    • We’ve found when kids and/or teens spend time with adults in all sorts of fields it opens up the young people to new ideas that can be found with people who love bird watching or chemistry or pottery or weather forecasting. And you’re so right, adults gain too. When we live in a society that segregates age groups so relentlessly, it deprives adults from the very natural desire to pass along what they know. We’ve even noticed that it seems to reinvigorate some sort of lost hope in these adults.


  7. YES! You’ve written what I’ve tried to express so many times. To my myself, my husband, whoever will listen. 🙂

    I think the key is how we are raising our children from the get-go. If they’re always in scheduled, planned activities with friends, or teams and groups, how will they learn anything other than that very specific task or activity? Are we letting them hang around the house when we mow the lawn, work on the car, or work on the bathroom remodel? Or do we shoo them away or schedule them for something? Fewer scheduled activities is the number one way to solve this problem. Because then the children will be home more. Watching us take care of things that need to be taken care of! Laundry, cars, yards, home repairs and improvements, hobbies, whatever! I totally reject the idea of having a weekend that is scheduled entirely around kids’ activities. This sounds hellish to me. Mind you, I’m pregnant with our fourth child so I know this will be a losing battle but it’s one that I will fight. Shoot, if kids could just go play outside in the neighborhood with one another that would be a big start. They’d get into all sorts of fun and mischief. In a good way. But generally that’s not allowed. (My neighborhood is a ghost town and I see inquiries from our neighbors for kindergarten and first grade tutors…) They must be scheduled. And trained. And working toward something that looks good on a college transcript. Apparently… It’s a sad state of affairs.

    I think this ties in nicely to the work that Mike Rowe is doing to get more attention brought to the merit of working in the trades, something I also feel is worthwhile.


    • Wish you lived in my neighborhood Lisa. It’s a ghost town here too. My kids certainly have been involved in some scheduled activities over the years, but not a lot. I particularly avoided sports (soccer is huge in our area) because I saw friends who committed the bulk of their family time to it: driving to practice and games, having no time for family meals or free play, often dragging toddlers who had to wait patiently. I think there’s more to be gained both in learning and character-building, for kids to play with other kids in pick-up games and other forms of play. Formal adult-run sports, in my opinion, can wait till they’re older.

      Kids throughout human history have learned by watching, imitating, and participating with adults who are doing real, useful work. Separating them from this and from the community at large isn’t helpful.


      • I couldn’t agree more. It isn’t natural to have our children in so many peer-oriented activities that the adults then sit around and watch, foregoing their own interests and responsibilities. It’s strange.

        I am working on getting my husband to move (out of state!) to hopefully an area/neighborhood that embraces these values more. I know soccer is everywhere 😉 but we can start with a more interactive neighborhood.


  8. Thank you so much for this post. I can’t help but think we’ve cut off children from real work because we’ve cut ourselves off from real work. Something breaks? Buy a new one, because I couldn’t fix it if I wanted to. Need something? Buy it, because I don’t know how to make it. I have grown happier and more sane with every new “old fashioned” skill I’ve learned. Baking bread, building a table, sewing… when my sons see me doing this kind of work I feel like I am doing them and myself so much good. This post inspires me to do more!


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