What if mentoring doesn’t work?

BBBS banner image

The greatest gift you have to give to another is your time.

I believe that. That feels right. But what if it isn’t? What if you volunteered as a mentor and in the long run it was harmful to your mentee?

For years I volunteered as a big brother with Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS). My little was 10, now he’s 19. (I think! He’ll probably read this and correct me. He’s like that.) The BBBS model of recruiting Bigs and selectively matching them with Littles and offering them match support is proven.

(From the Washington Post)

The prototype for all this – and the model from which [Wellesely College economist Philip] Levine suggests building – is Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, which provides mentors to about 200,000 adolescents nationwide. Young people in this program show improvement in academic performance across several measures, including a small but significant increase in pivotal grade-point average. The program’s mentors undergo background checks and extensive training and are supervised.

Big Brothers Big Sisters costs about $1,600 per participant – so a basic question arises: Is it worth it?

Intuitively, most laypeople would say yes. But economists, being economists, tend to answer this in a very particular way: as a matter of private return on investment vs. social return. In the case of private return, does the young person benefit more from mentoring than if Big Brothers Big Sisters had just given him or her the money?

Absolutely, Levine concludes. Doing some fancy math that converts improved grade-point averages into wages over a lifetime, Big Brothers Big Sisters benefits exceed costs by a ratio of almost 5 to 1, he writes.

Confession of a failed mentor?

Often BBBS itself shows that kids who participate in the program are less likely to use drugs, go to prison, and more likely to graduate high school. My Little, who actually feels like my little brother in many ways, was 0 for 3 in these areas. If the Little not getting in trouble with the law, not doing drugs, and graduating high school is how we measure the success of a mentor, I was a major failure.

I didn’t realize that I had some guilt around this until poet Michael Brockley sat down with me to chat and write my story for Mentoring in Muncie: A Facing Project.

Here’s an excerpt from A Brothership Memoir:

None of us chooses our brothers. I volunteered to enter his world of demigods and lightning-scarred wizards. We forged our brothership over a Scrabble board and phone conversations between Burkina Faso and Middletown, U. S. A. I didn’t choose Matt. He didn’t choose me. But we ring true when we’re together.

(Matt isn’t his real name by the way.)

Often I’ve wondered if Matt would’ve been better off without me, and if I had no impact or even a negative impact on his life. Once I really get engaged in trying to do good and make a positive impact, I started to see how difficult it actually was and that trying to do good can sometimes be harmful.

I’m glad to know Matt. He’s a father now. I’ve held his baby boy and enjoyed watching him enjoy being a dad. I’m still a supporter of BBBS, in fact, I helped lead their Facing Project. My friend, Stephanie Fisher, is currently raising funds for our local BBBS program. I’ll donate to her cause (you should consider donating too).

Did my mentoring work for Matt? I don’t know. Not all mentoring programs work.

Kids harmed by mentoring

In 1939 researchers decided to apply the scientific method to see whether mentoring and youth intervention through the Cambridge Somerville Youth Study program lowered the rate of juvenile delinquency. There was a treatment group (those who were paired with a mentor) and there was a control group (those who came from a similar background but weren’t matched with a mentor). They followed the kids over time.

Ten years after beginning the program, there was no significant difference between the groups.

However, thirty years after the program, there was an unexpected statistically significant difference between the groups. The kids who were in the program were more likely to be substance abusers, more likely to have unhealthy relationships with a spouse, and, in general, were not as happy or as successful as the individuals in the control group.

They were harmed by mentoring.

Now if you asked the mentees about whether the program was successful, they would rave about their mentor, ask how they were doing. Same for the mentor. They both looked on the experience positively.

Joan McCord, the researcher who followed up on the study in 1981 and found that the program had a negative impact, was never able to pinpoint why the program was harmful, but she had some theories.

1) The kids in the program were exposed to middle class values and aspirations where you follow your passion, you marry for love, you can be anything you want to be. That’s not a reality for many. She theorized that kids who were in the program raised their expectations and when those expectations were not met, they were unhappy and frustrated, which had a negative long term impact.

2) The kids in the program spent a lot of time together and may have negatively influenced one another.

If you want to learn more about this, I highly recommend listening to Episode 2 of Doing Good Better: a podcast about Effective Altruism. The hosts interview Joan McCord’s son. He was volunteering as a mentor when his mom was conducting this study and she suggested he quit.

Should you quit being a mentor?

No. Please, no. Where would you be without the mentors in your life? You should read the full article in the Washington Post, The Economic Case of Mentoring Disadvantaged Youth. You should ask tough questions of yourself and the mentoring organization you choose.
Time is the most valuable thing we have to give, and therefore we should give it wisely.

Tracy Mishkin says:

I don’t think that one can conclude that the kids in the 1939-1969 study were “harmed by mentoring.” At least not based on the evidence you present.

Kelsey says:

Tracy, I recommend listening to the podcast embedded in this post. It makes the case better than I did. Thanks for reading with an analytical eye. I think you are going to be interested in my new book project. I hope you’ll continue to be part of the conversation, so I can learn from you.

Eunice Davis says:

It had a negative impact on me I saw my mentor one time before she said she was moving to China.if she bothered to get to know me then she would see that I had no one and she would just talk to me then I would have been happy.my mom was emotionally abusive and was on her 7th straight year then of silent treatments.no talking ever.at school I was invisible.later bullied.my mom abandoned me at 12. Went to foster care and down the road to hell from there. I wonder if she would just had a second date said some kind words that I could interpret into my life would it be different. it’s not her fault.parents where horrible.foster care was horrible.now I’m 30, been going to college for 10years.former prostitute.been to jail.on public housing. With no family.turns out I’m ugly (my dads family says) so they never saw me and my mom family hates me sisnce I was a kid. I spend holidays alone.everyday I wake up I beg god to take my life away.i have 4 kids different fathers and 3 abortions different.every person left me pregnant.my family doesn’t want me and no one wants to make a family with me.

So the doctor is right my expectations was not this I used to be optimistic

Let your voice be heard!