This is part 5 of a 12-part blog series that explores mentoring skills and principles for adults serving teacher and priest-age boys (14-18):
- Principle #1: Know the Youth and Care About Them
- Principle #2: Check your Ethics
- Principle #3: Prepare To Be A Mentor
- Principle #4: Provide a Model of Leadership
- Principle #5: Form A Relationship of Trust
- Principle #6: Learn To Assess Progress
- Principle #7: Assess Your Own Progress as a Mentor
- Principle #8: Set Up a Regular Cycle of Mentoring Activities
The remaining posts will appear weekly.
Principle #5: Form A Relationship of Trust
A young man of Varsity age is learning a lot of life’s most important skills all at once. He is learning to be an individual, to be a responsible family member, to be a good student, to get along socially, to be accepted, to know what his own values are and how to make value choices on his own, how to stand up for himself, how to get along with the opposite sex, how to be a good citizen, how to listen to his conscience, and how to manage a body whose chemistry seems wildly out of control. (See a more complete list of these life tasks at the end of this post.)
That’s a full plate. As a youth deals with these issues, which are normal to growth, he also has heavy expectations placed on him by parents, who hope for his success but feel so deeply the need for him to make right choices that communications often communicate pressure rather than encouragement.
If there was ever a time in the life of a youth when he was emerging from the protective family environment into a spacious field filled with a confusing and disorienting mist, it is this period. Parents are no longer able to make all of the decisions of this youth, and the youth won’t have it anyway. In order for the youth to break away and become an individual, there have to be personal choices made that are of great consequence. Yet these are made in a climate of reduced reliance on parents, who are find it as hard to understand the youth as the youth is finding it hard to understand himself.
It is a tough journey. In February 1989, a great Scouter, Thomas S. Monson, spoke of the journey of “a certain man” on the road to Jericho. The man was set upon by thieves who beat him, robbed him, and left him half dead. A Levite and a Priest hastened past the man on the far side of the road, hoping not to become involved. The man was sure to die, except for the help of a Samaritan who had compassion, stopped, and administered much needed help. Monson asks, “Each of us will…travel his own Jericho Road. What will be your experience? What will be mine? Will I fail to notice him who has fallen among thieves and requires my help? Will you?”
A Varsity Scout-aged youth is on the danger-lined road, as it were, on the way to his own Jericho. There are people of ill will waiting along this road, and others who don’t care for the youth. Still others who could help don’t want to become involved. So, who is there to help the youth see through the dust and the mist long enough to make his way safely?
Fortunately there are helpers purposely placed along the road to support the youth’s journey, but they can only help if they have gained the trust of the youth. That is why it is important for Scout leaders in all positions of responsibility to be available and ready to form those trusting relationships. This is a topic worth some thought.
What is the most important job for adults in supporting youth? It is probably first and foremost keeping communication lines open. Surprising? Did you think it would be disciplining? Controlling? Or passing judgment? Falling silent?
During teenage years, when a youth is most in need of the wisdom only acquired by experience, he is also pushing away from adults in the search for his own identity, so there is a lower likelihood that the youth will come seeking that wisdom, especially from judgmental and disapproving adults.
Consider an alternative: A two-way conversation between youth and adults in which the adult uses wisdom, working to understand the youth, keeping the lines of communication open, refusing to be rejected, as would a good friend, and being there as a friend. Keeping the conversation going—keeping the lines of communication open—is a critical part of forming a relationship of trust with a youth. The most important outcome of keeping the lines open is that in the end both the adult and the youth are changed by it in a positive way.
Staying engaged in communication with a young man does not mean going along with everything the young man is doing, or approving of it, or giving up your own important values. Most of our grown-up friends do things that we don’t feel 100% comfortable with, but that doesn’t mean that we break things off with that friend. In fact, it may mean that we redouble our efforts to find ways to remain friends so that we can help them make a course correction.
The Samaritan didn’t use the occasion to rebuke, to belittle, to lecture, to prove himself right, or to increase his own feelings of importance by showing off. Instead, he put himself at some degree of risk, and at some expense (Remember, this was the same thief-infested road!). He poured “oil and wine” into the man’s wounds (biblical version of first-aid?). He went out of his way to give the service, and he gave it because he cared. That must have been evident to the man he served; however, we are never told how he responded to this tender mercy.
Forming a relationship of trust with a young Scout calls for some of the same principles. Giving the service was not abut the server but about the one being served. It is clear that the Samaritan himself was trustworthy, because the inn-keeper was willing to accept the promise of future payment for extra expenses.
Once the lines of communication are opened with a youth, how do we keep them open? Here are some ideas:
- Listen carefully. Make sure you heard what the youth was really saying, not just what you think they were saying. Our own biases act as a filter through which we pass everything we experience. Double-check what you think you heard. What’s more, in the process you will learn a lot about the youth and what he is interested in.
- Think before you speak. A single word spoken on impulse can pull down communication lines in an instant. Just as a carpenter measures twice before cutting once, you should think twice before speaking once. Respond, don’t react.
- Act, don’t react: don’t reach for the knife. Sometimes youth relate something about themselves that is so scary to us that we immediately sputter out words of fear. We begin to preach and lecture. We ask for firm promises on the spot, and we act worried. Sometimes the effect of doing this is exactly the opposite of what we intend. Boyd K. Packer once described the case of a child carrying sharp a kitchen knife, not realizing just how dangerous it was. If we reach too eagerly for the knife and try to take it from the child, the child’s impulse is to jerk it backwards, possibly inflicting a serious wound. As we have conversations with youth, we should be careful to speak after thinking.
- Try to understand what the other person is thinking. As an adult, we judge others by our adult experience and expectations. Youth haven’t reached that point yet. When you are trying to understand a youth, you have to see things from where the youth is: as an adolescent. There is a logic to what youth do, and as adults we need to learn again the logic of what they are doing, which used to be our logic when we were youth.
- Be ready to examine your own position. As adults we are used to acting as if we were always 100% right. In a workaday world we have to be like that a little (okay, a lot like that). But if you stop and think about that as a youth sees it, it sounds pretty arrogant, doesn’t it? Nobody is right all the time. We as adults are still learning, just like youth. Maybe in our interactions with youth there are places where visible adjustments in our thinking after we have listened can demonstrate our own willingness to learn. Maybe when the youth see we are ready to learn from them they will find it easier to learn from us.
- Be patient and constant, even when pushed away. Many of us can still recall the rebellions of our own youthful years. I didn’t always seek out contacts with adults. Some of the time I was hoping adults wouldn’t figure out what I was doing. (Come on, confess!) Neither will every youth welcome your intrusion into their lives, but intrude you must—in a good, non-intrusive kind of way. You may get the cold shoulder from a youth you are assigned to work with. Don’t be put off. Just continue to show up, and show an interest in the youth without prying. The youth wants to be recognized and valued. If you are consistent, the ice will melt. And even if it never seems to happen, haven’t you heard stories of appreciation for adults who got through but never realized it?
- Repair breaks when they happen. If you stumble in a relationship of trust and do something stupid, be ready to say that you were wrong and apologize. Once again, if you show you are learning, then youth will be more likely to learn with you. Don’t act proud, and don’t try to stonewall your mistakes and act as if they never happened.
There are some sure-fire methods for mentoring youth and adults alike. They include: persuasion (as opposed to force or compulsion), longsuffering (as opposed to short temper), gentleness (as opposed to roughness or shortness), meekness (as opposed to pride, vainglory, and bluster), love unfeigned (as opposed to a showy but shallow concern), kindness (as opposed to rudeness), and pure knowledge. Pure knowledge can come from many sources: reading, pondering, even praying. There is a spiritual dimension to Scouting, and sometimes we call on inspiration to carry us through the rough spots.