Ethics In Mentoring

By Mass Mentoring VP and COO Sue Anne Endelman

Early on in my tenure at Mass Mentoring Partnership, I remember reading the slogan: “Anyone Can Be a Mentor.” It seemed to be commonly accepted language in promotional materials designed to recruit new mentors. Looking back, I think the message was meant to dispel any notions that educational credentials, social class or financial resources were pre-requisites for becoming a mentor to a young person.

But as we heard yesterday at Mass Mentoring Partnership’s annual Forum on Youth Mentoring, there are a fair amount of qualifiers that need to go along with that open-ended invitation to prospective mentors. And the pre-requisites have much more to with personal values, relationship skills, and a willingness to learn new ways of thinking about people.

Fortunately for the young people who are served by the Massachusetts network of youth mentoring programs, the youth mentoring field is maturing and benefiting from the work of cutting-edge researchers like Dr. Belle Liang, Dr. Jean Rhodes, and Dr. Renee Spencer. Using their training in the clinical fields of psychology and social work, these Boston-based, nationally recognized researchers have delineated five guiding principles for volunteer mentors engaged in mentoring relationships with youth.

The principles are meant to promote the evidence-based behaviors that allow young people to truly benefit from relationships with unrelated adults, and also stem the tide of failure that comes from well-meaning adults who may underestimate the influence of their actions on their mentees.

At the heart of “First Do No Harm: Ethical Principle for Youth Mentoring Relationships” is a pretty straightforward message: becoming a mentor is a responsibility that requires a commitment, a willingness to ask for help when you feel uneasy or unsure, and enough self-awareness to think through the potential impact of your actions on your mentee.

It all sounds like a pretty tall order for someone who just wants to give a few hours a month to help out a young person who could benefit from the attention of a caring adult. And maybe it is. But so is being a good parent, friend, co-worker, or neighbor. All relationships that really matter take some work on behalf of both partners. And just as with parenting or being a teacher or a Girl Scout leader or coach, it is up to the adults in these relationships to…well, act like adults!

Adapting from the notion that it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a pro-active and communicative mentoring program staff to support volunteer mentors. That is also the take-home message from these new ethical principles for youth mentoring. Volunteer mentors need to be trained and then nurtured over the long-haul in this challenging task of relationship-building by professional staff who will support them and stand by them.

So I guess the real bottom-line is: we’re in this together: mentoring program staff, volunteer mentors, researchers, young people, parents…and organizations like Mass Mentoring Partnership.