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The Vital Role Mentors Play in a Student’s Growth

Over the holidays I watched my daughter, Bethany, interact with Jesse, one of her mentors. Jesse is a licensed therapist, and Bethany has become a counselor herself. Jesse began to ask her questions about who played a role in molding her worldview and values as a young professional; who was it that molded her into the woman she was today? I knew I was in for a clinic on my adult child’s personal development.

Let me share with you what I learned as I listened to my 29 year old daughter—who is still the apple of my eye—unpack her understanding of who and what shaped her.

1. Conscious and Unconscious Growth.

The first and most obvious observation I made was that Bethany had her own angle on what happened. It was her own first-hand experience, but I noticed she was less aware of the marks that some people made along the way. She was conscious of certain people’s influence, yet unconscious of how much other people influenced her and gave her permission to act in particular ways.

For years, my wife and I hosted college interns at our home who lived with us for a semester and sometimes up to a year. We tried to create an environment for growth, both for them and for our children who enjoyed time with role models. After each intern, we could see their influence on both of our kids. Some had more than others, but some had influence that Bethany wasn’t completely conscious of; she didn’t realize how deeply a specific person had indelibly etched their mark on her. (Either that or she didn’t want to admit it.) This served as a reminder to me that you and I will influence students through the years both consciously and unconsciously. The ones who feel chemistry with us will likely be aware of it. Others may not. Keep investing, regardless of the chemistry.

2. Template and Temporary Growth.

Some of Bethany’s most influential leaders, role models and mentors were people who came during an important season of her life and provided a “template” for how to behave in a particular situation. How to approach it. How to talk. How to think. This is what I refer to as “template” influence. Someone offers a style or an idea that seems to fit a young person and furnish him or her with a way to succeed in their environment. I listened as Bethany described particular people (sometimes, much to my satisfaction, it was her mom and dad) who provided her with a pattern for how to act. This is where parents, teachers, coaches and mentors can deeply impact students. We are with them in key times with prototypes, models or templates for such times.

Others may offer only temporary influence; they influence only because they are older or more experienced. It’s part of the territory of being an adult. There’s nothing wrong with temporary influence; we all had someone do that for us in a classroom, a sports team, or a peer group—and it helped us in that scenario.

This reminds me that much of my life may only influence students temporarily due to my age or experience in a situation. Other parts go deeper and last longer because I have mastered a category and can furnish a “template” a student can replicate in their own life. What templates do you offer that set grooves or patterns in their behavior? Even if they are unaware of your modeling, what model do you offer?

3. Timing and Time in.

Often, investing in students is like investing money for retirement. As I mentioned  above, sometimes, timing is everything. We have arrived in their life at a season when they most need what we have to offer. Some of Bethany’s most influential mentors became so because of their timing. They were in her life at the very moment she was ready to learn and grow. It’s the old proverb: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” We must keep our antennas up for such times and scenarios where our words may seem simple, but they are profound because of the moment.

At other times, some of the most influential people in her life were simply people who stayed in her life. They may not have been flashy or highly talented but they were adults who remained with her, consistently offering her input along the way. This is frequently the role parents play in a child’s life. Like our finances, often the key is not so much the “timing” of your investment, but “time in.” It’s the amount of time you leave that money in an account that determines how much it increases by retirement. Never underestimate the power of consistency in a kid’s life. Having a steady role model is the most powerful influence of a student’s behavior.

4. Nature and Nurture.

Finally, we must never forget the impact of both genetics and context. While young people are products of their environments—both healthy and unhealthy—they are also products of the DNA they received from their parents. I remember talking to John Maxwell about this year ago. He’s such an optimist about a leader’s ability to change people’s lives, but even he acknowledged, decades into his career, that most people find it difficult to overcome certain traits and tendencies. John and Margaret Maxwell adopted both of their children. As adults, they absolutely love their kids, but realize those adult children have specific tendencies that are inborn.

I remind you of this to prevent you from beating yourself up as a mentor. Perhaps half of a student’s behavior is informed by nurture, the rest by nature. Do what you can do to help kids, believe in them, but then, let them take responsibility for who they become. And who knows—maybe you’ll be fortunate to witness what my wife and I have witnessed in our daughter Bethany. It’s the reward of mentors.


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