Mentors make a big difference in kids lives, according to an abundance of personal success stories and lots of research. Programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters seem like a perfect idea. Capitalize on the wishes of those who want to do something and help young people succeed in school and other areas.
But there's a catch. The way these mentoring programs are designed might be making them less effective. General estimates say only half of all formally established mentoring relationships last beyond a few months. This is especially true for "vulnerable" youth.
Even though pretty much any kid would benefit from a little guidance, disconnected and underserved youth (those who have experienced foster care, homelessness, or the juvenile justice system for example), are the best candidates for mentoring relationships.
Many of these disconnected youth may find it difficult to trust systems and adults. That’s one reason why some young people involved in formal mentoring programs have a hard time connecting with the adult they were matched with.
Now there's a new idea around mentoring called "natural mentoring." It's when a young person makes their own connection with someone they already know.
Instead of being told they can trust someone, natural - or youth initiated - mentoring allows young people to determine if they trust somebody else on their own - a skill that will benefit them later in life.
Natural mentoring relationships may be more likely to last than formal mentoring relationships, probably because kids think it was their idea.
Natural mentoring has other benefits, too. It can help promote concepts of interdependence versus independence. The more practice disconnected youth have forming connections, the better at it they'll become.
This model won't work in every situation. The success of natural mentoring may depend on an individual's situation and environment. If a young person doesn't have any positive role models in their life, finding the right person to form a natural mentoring relationship is obviously harder. Some natural mentoring relationships might need a bit of a push from an adult to really get started.
Natural mentoring isn't likely to take the place of more formal mentoring programs, or undermine them. But for some kids natural mentoring might work better.