As I have shared in “Becoming a Very Best Thing,” I am mentoring a first grade girl this year through Seedling Mentor Program, a school-based, research driven and metrics based program that has great training and great support. This is a short award-winning video I think you will enjoy.
I come from a family that had its share of poverty and dysfunction, divorces and chaos. As an adult, I even had a dad in prison. The parallels between me and my little Mentee are many. You would think I would know everything I need to about how to communicate and behave constructively with her, but you would be wrong.
You see, I have forty plus years on her, and during that time I had a successful career, married a wonderful man, had two precious daughters, began my second career in philanthropy and along the way, I became financially comfortable and very removed from the culture of poverty and family crisis. I had to get re-indoctrinated and learn lessons from an adult perspective, and thank heavens, Seedling’s Promise assumes we all will need that and prepares us accordingly to be intentional mentors.
There are many books on the subject of the culture of poverty and Ruby Payne’s are “must reads” for anyone who really wants to explore it, but today I will share with you just a few things I learned this semester.
1. The gifts I bring to my Mentee are hers to do with as she wishes. I must not put any expectations on what she will do with them. Why? Because in the culture of poverty, all things brought into the house are the family’s. When I gave my Mentee a set of bobby pins with little silk flowers on them for Valentine’s Day, she told me her mom “put them on the baby.” Untrained me might have said something like, “But those are yours; you should take them back!” or perhaps even worse, “Oh my gosh, why would you put those on a baby? That could be dangerous!” Both statements would be damaging and would move my Mentee away from me because it would be painfully clear to her that a.) I didn’t understand her family at all, and b.) I disapproved of them. Instead, knowing what I knew thanks to Seedling, I simply told her that she was kind to share with her sister and moved on.
2. I must avoid judgment of the child’s parents. One of the most damaging things a Mentor can do with a child of the incarcerated is to express any disapproval of the missing parent or the caregiver who is present in their lives. I helped my Mentee write a note to her parent in prison yesterday, and all that was there was the unconditional love of a child for a missing parent. I wrote him a note, too, and simply told him he had a lovely daughter and I was enjoying getting to know her. Of course, both had to have smiley face stamps!
3. I must always respect the pride of the Caregiver. She is the gatekeeper of the mentoring relationship and it exists only with her approval. I do not know her story and I do not have any right or basis to judge anything about the way she is raising her children. Repeat that mantra, because we all are tempted to jump in and “save” someone or make them fit our paradigm of success and the essence of mentoring is combining acceptance and role modeling. If you have a long-term effect on a child, it will be because of what you are and the friendship you offer. Are there any exceptions to this rule? Sure, and Seedling trains you carefully on what to do if you see signs of abuse or neglect.
4. I am there for my Mentee. All other things around that are just scenery or distractions, and my prime directive in this burgeoning relationship is to listen and do no harm.
My first year with her and I have already learned so much that I will apply to other relationships! What will the future hold? I am not sure, but I hope it includes her giggles and smiles.