Heart of the Matter

Andy Chan's Blog for Parents, Mentors and Teachers

Parents as Mentors

Allison McWilliams, Ph.D. and Wake Forest alumnae, is our director of the new Mentoring Resource Center at Wake Forest University.  She wrote the following to guide parents to effectively mentor their children, advice we are frequently asked for by parents of college students and recent graduates.

Can a parent mentor his own child? Absolutely, yes! In fact parents, often without realizing it, serve as informal mentors to their children throughout their lives, due to sheer proximity as role models; children watch their parents to see how they make decisions, how they deal with pressure and positive and negative feedback, as well as listening to their advice and guidance. However, should a parent take the extra step to more formally mentor his own child? It depends. This type of a relationship can be enormously rewarding, both for the student and for the parent. But it is a relationship that requires dedicated time and energy. Mentors, whether they are parents, community members, peers, or others, purposefully model certain skills, including:

  • Asking thoughtful and thought-provoking questions
  • Actively listening
  • Behaving as a role model
  • Providing objective feedback and guidance

If you are a parent who wants to serve in a more formal capacity as a mentor to your child, you should first ask if you are best equipped to fulfill this role. Is your relationship with your child one that will allow you to actively listen, to ask thought-provoking questions, and to provide objective feedback, without trying to “fix” the situation for your child, or to push him in the direction you want him to go (as opposed to helping him get to where he wants to go)? If the answer is perhaps not, then sometimes the best thing that a parent can do is to seek out another person to mentor the student. If the answer is Yes, then as with any mentoring relationship, there are some basic guiding principles:

1.      Set up regular one-on-one meetings that are dedicated to the relationship. Clearly, at this point you will need to get agreement from the student that he desires to take part in this process as well. Don’t force it.
2.      Set goals and a timeline for the relationship. How often will you meet? When will the formal relationship end?
3.      Facilitate a mentoring conversation during the meetings. A mentoring conversation is based on the principles of experiential learning:

  • What is the current situation? (Where is the student now?)
  • What is the desired state/goal? (Where would the student like to be in the future?)
  • What is the action plan to achieve the desired state/goal?
  • What happened? Why? What is the new current situation?

4.      Periodically evaluate the relationship. At the end of each meeting it is good to do a short “debrief”: What was discussed? What are the goals for the next meeting? Were the goals for this meeting accomplished? This provides both immediate feedback as well as clarity on next steps. Additionally, it is useful to take a step back every few months and evaluate whether and how the relationship is working.
5.      Bring closure to the relationship. Obviously, a parent is not going to “bring closure” to his relationship with his child. But there should be an identified end point to the formal mentoring relationship, whether it is six months, a year, two years, once the student graduates from college, etc.  Use this opportunity to celebrate what you have accomplished together, and allow the relationship to move into a more informal phase.

Some possible conversation starters:

  • Discuss the student’s favorite class, clubs and/or projects
  • Have the student write her “headline”: In 10 years from now, what will be said about her?
  • Work on a list of dream careers, and then find people in those fields to talk to about what their jobs are, how they got there and words of perspective or advice
  • Find a book to read together and discuss
  • Use examples from current events to talk about professionalism, leadership, ethics, character, values, decision-making

Some Mentoring Resources:
Ann Rolfe is an Australian who runs her own consulting business, and has an excellent website of resources. Some of it you have to pay for, but a good bit of it is free and worth checking out:

Look up “mentoring” on Amazon.com and you will find over 5,000 results, many of them quite good. Just to pick two worth checking out:

Category: Tips for Parents