This article is adapted from David L. Kirp’s forthcoming book, Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives and America’s Future (Public Affairs).
As seasoned kindergarten teachers in downtrodden neighborhoods will tell you, in every class there are some 5-year-olds who can’t sit still and won’t follow directions, who fight with their classmates and even sometimes threaten suicide. And the teachers worry, with good reason, that these children are at greater risk of becoming pregnant or getting in trouble with the law when they’re teenagers. These kids may never have had the kind of secure relationship with an adult that psychologists regard as essential for normal development, but there’s not much kindergarten teachers can do to overcome that, with dozens of students on their hands.
The arc of a child’s life isn’t entirely predictable, of course, and the odds that children will succeed improve markedly if they can count on stable adult support. That’s what a mentoring organization called Friends of the Children has set out to achieve. The nonprofit’s strategy is simple to state and devilishly hard to pull off: start very early, in kindergarten; be steadfast; take all the time these kids need to connect with a caring adult; and stick with them—not for a year or two, like most mentoring initiatives, but until they graduate.
The good news is how well this approach works. As I crisscrossed the country, seeking initiatives with the power to change kids’ lives, Friends of the Children is the only program I found that breaks the generational cycle of poverty, crime and teenage parenthood, enabling kids who begin with the odds heavily stacked against them to become engaged and productive citizens.
Coming of age can be a fraught journey, especially when there is no teacher or coach, no neighbor or clergyman in a youngster’s life—someone who listens, who can give a nudge at just the right moment, who can pry open the right door or maybe shut the wrong one. Ask anyone who has engaged with youngsters what matters most, and the answer is invariably the same—the presence of a caring and stable adult in a child’s life.
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Those with faith in the transformative power of mentoring have always had a pocketful of feel-good tales about youngsters whose futures were reinvented by a solicitous adult. These stories may have motivated private benefactors to open their wallets, but they didn’t persuade policy-makers to do the same. In our results-driven era, the message is, “Don’t just tug at my heartstrings; prove that your social policy accomplishes something,” says Gary Walker, former president of Public/Private Ventures. Hard evidence that mentoring can make a difference came with a 1995 random impact study of Big Brothers Big Sisters, carried out by Walker’s organization, which found that after students were linked to a mentor for a year, school absenteeism was halved, first-time alcohol use was reduced by almost a third and first-time drug use was nearly halved. Suddenly a goody-two-shoes venture turned into a solid public investment.
The United States is a nation of joiners, and there are thousands of mentoring organizations in this country. Although these groups have the best intentions, they sometimes fail to honor their commitments. The consequences are unfortunate: mentoring relationships that fall apart in less than six months can actually do kids harm. To secure positive results, the Big Brothers Big Sisters study showed, it’s essential to maintain the consistent involvement of an adult in a youngster’s life for several hours each week, week in and week out. Ample time is needed, writes psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, to form “a special bond of mutual commitment” and an “emotional character of respect, loyalty, and identification.”