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The Big Answer

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The Kindness of Strangers

a book by Marc Freedman

(our site's book review)

Freedman gives an overview of our nation’s mentoring programs, showing what makes them work and what makes them fail. He quotes Vaclav Havel, who says that: “Time and time again I have been persuaded that a huge potential of goodwill is slumbering within our society.” Many of us want to help a fragmented society; many desire to make a difference for the poor and disadvantaged. Mentor programs help transform yearning into action. He’s clear that it’s not only a poverty-related issue:

Many people desire to make a difference for the poor and disadvantaged, so we volunteer or mentor
Many people desire to make a difference for the poor and disadvantaged, so we volunteer or mentor

“Furthermore, mentoring springs from a compelling, common-sense insight. Young people in our society, across the socioeconomic spectrum, are not getting enough caring or personal attention from adults. . . . [people are] experiencing a deeply felt yearning for connection. . . . Almost three out of four Americans do not even know the people living next door.” He quotes Bill Clinton:

Bill Clinton supported mentoring
Bill Clinton supported mentoring

“People who grew up in difficult circumstances and yet are successful have one thing in common: at a critical juncture in their early adolescence, they had a positive relationship with a caring adult.” He then quotes Emmy E. Werner, who’s studied kids that do okay even in negative surroundings and found that such kids were able to draw on the support of neighborhood mentors, frequently unrelated adults. “. . . it may make better sense to strengthen such available informal ties to kin and community [than to add new layers of bureaucracy or social services].” Clinton adds that if these mentors are not present in the young person’s immediate environment, then society has the responsibility to provide access to such individuals. Like most of us, he’d prefer that the proper functioning of community provided them so governments and bureaucracies are uninvolved, but if no other way but a “program” would do the job, he would take that over nothing, because the problem is so serious.

Mary Ainsworth, the child development expert, underlines the importance of mentoring relationships, particularly: “. . . in the case of children who find in such relationships the security they could not attain with their own parent.”

About half the attempted mentoring relationships do not take hold
About half the attempted mentoring relationships do not take hold

Because of the fact that most mentoring programs don’t help kids until they reach their teens, half the attempted relationships do not take hold. (MCs give kids enhanced social resource opportunities from the day they’re born, so they wouldn’t have to experience the difficulty of relationships that don’t work. MCs are, by definition, the epitome of the best child-raising environment ever. They are the essence of prevention rather than cure, but, what’s more, they are set up to inspire, build character and responsibility, and engender happy, productive, creative citizens. See Why Register for an MC?.)

Registering for MC search and match
Registering for MC search and match

The main problems associated with mentoring problems can be boiled down to the fact that few volunteers know P.E.T. or Winning Family Lifeskills methods and try to get by on good intentions, without the knowledge to back it up. The author realizes that lack of knowledge is a big problem, but tends to see “infrastructure” and funds for programs as two of the areas of serious deficiencies.

Like all wise people—who realize that “it takes a village to raise a child”—the author knows that: “the isolation of youth is a structural problem resulting from a set of fundamental changes in our society. Families and neighborhoods supply few adult supports for youth, and schools and other institutions are not effectively compensating for this deficiency. . . . given the stressful circumstances so many inner-city youth face, most could use three or four parents. . . . Creating mentor-rich settings . . . is one way of moving beyond the chimera of supermentoring, in which a single charismatic adult is called on to be a dramatic influence, providing all the young person’s needs in one relationship. In reality, young people need more than one relationship to develop into healthy adults.”

Freedman goes on to recommend mentor-rich environments in which the kids get to exercise choice—finding for themselves who they can relate to best. (He does everything but say “MC” here. See Why Register for an MC?.)

He acknowledges the validity of Robert Reich’s (The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism) concept of de facto secession of the top 20%—the Info-ready symbolic analysts—as they try to avoid even proximity to the underclass and lock themselves into guarded, walled enclaves.

Info-ready symbolic analysts avoid the underclass and lock themselves into guarded, walled enclaves
Info-ready symbolic analysts avoid the underclass and lock themselves into guarded, walled enclaves

Mentors try to, in their own words: “. . . recreate the extended family,” and “restore the individual and collective responsibility we used to owe each other.” Americans, the author says, wish to: “. . . preserve a set of social relationships perceived to be vanishing: ties between the generations, responsibility to strangers, a sense of community, and the bonds of family.”