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January is Mentoring Month: How Mentors Can Be a Single Parent’s Best Friend

By Laura Reagan-Porras, MS

  • What messages am I sending my children about money, nutrition or spirituality?
  • Are they receiving a quality education?
  • Are they getting enough attention?

These are a few of the questions parents may ask about how effective their parenting is. The questions may be more worrisome if parents are single and don’t have adequate support.

  • Maybe I over-indulge my kids because I feel guilty about the divorce?
  • How are my kids really coping with the separation and divorce?

These were the kinds of questions I asked when I was a single mother for five years in between my first and second marriage. While I am grateful I have a partner now, a strategy I used when I was a single parent was to choose a mentor for my girls. She acted as a beloved adopted sister to my girls. She was a level headed college student, who spent time doing fun activities with to my girls, really listened to them and in so doing became an important emotionally available adult to them. 

The modern concept of mentoring for positive outcomes with youth began in the 20th century in juvenile justice and social work venues.  The mentoring movement organized in 1997 during the Summit for America’s Future now known as America’s Promise, for whom Colin Powell is one of the founders and spokespersons.  At the summit the value of caring adults in the life of children that support issues of health, education and skills building for the future was emphasized. In 2014, the Whitehouse renewed its endorsement of mentoring by launching the initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper, an effort to expand mentoring services to improve outcomes for minorities, particularly minority males.  

The Department of Education for the purpose of their grantees, defines mentoring as, “a structured and trusting relationship that brings young people together with caring individuals who offer guidance, support and encouragement aimed at developing the competence and character of youth being mentored (mentees),” according to Dr. Susan Weinberg of the Mentor Consulting Group.

In these trying economic times, parents are busy with the business of surviving with multiple jobs and making ends meet.  Children spend increasing amounts of time in front of the television or in front of computer or video games and less time interacting with adults. All youth need mentoring in that all youth need role models to show them the ropes of successful adulthood.  In sociology, we call this socialization.  It takes place everywhere at home, in school and in the community at large.  Children need caring adults to help them prepare for adulthood.

In single parent households the issues of attending children’s needs can be more complicated. There may be less free time to interact or less opportunity for undivided attention in large part due to the economic strain of living on one income. There is at least one less adult in the household to share the responsibilities of child rearing. Children may suffer behavioral consequences.

When Denise was ten years old, she moved to a new school because her parents separated. She began to act out and began to receive behavior reports from school.  She did not move to a new town so she was able to register in her local afterschool program, the Boys & Girls Club where she had attended summer camp several years in a row. They knew her well. Karen noticed that Denise was not acting like herself. She was getting into trouble and seemed irritable. Karen gave Denise a special assistant job, like making copies and answering phones so that she could spend some extra time with her. Karen shared the story of her own parents’ divorce and how she too felt frustrated and sometimes got angry without understanding why. She told Denise that it was okay to talk with her about it when that happened but that it wasn’t okay to get herself into trouble at school. The extra attention made a difference over time.

Effective mentoring programs take place when the mentor (adult) and the mentee (youth) are participating in fun activities together, learn skills together, solve problems together and give and receive help in crisis, (Reagan-Porras, JASS, 2013). In the case outlined, Karen was present for Denise in her family crisis and it helped Denise resolve some of her feelings about her parents’ divorce. A strong adult presence tends to help youth avoid negative behavior, particularly self-destructive behavior. 

After all, isn’t that what we want as parents, for our kids to grow up safe, healthy and supported with the skills they need to make their way in the world? No parent does it alone. Sometimes a mentor can be a parent’s best friend.

Laura Reagan-Porras is a family sociologist, parenting journalist and mother of two teen daughters. She can be reached at www.heart2heartparents.com

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