Researchers Examine Benefits of Informal Mentoring for Young People

By Maura King Scully

“It takes a village to raise a child.” The African proverb, connoting the importance of adult involvement beyond parents for children’s healthy growth, is well known. What is lesser known is whose participation matters. Just anyone in the village? Or is the help of some more significant than others? A team of Boston University School of Social Work (BUSSW) researchers looked at that question by examining informal mentorship—defined as naturally occurring relationships between young people and caring, non-parental adults. Their study, forthcoming in Children and Youth Services Review, considers why some youth have these important resources and others do not.

“Previous research points to a number of benefits of informal mentoring for young people, including increased educational attainment, higher socioeconomic status and better mental health,” explains Grace Gowdy, a BUSSW doctoral program graduate who led the research along with co-investigators Professors Daniel P. Miller and Renée Spencer. “Unfortunately, there is limited information about the characteristics of young people, their families and communities that are associated with informal mentorship, hampering efforts to design effective interventions to target at-risk young people.”

Their study expands understanding of the range of factors that predict mentorship in two significant ways. First, their research confirms previously tested attributes with a newly applied database, the Panel Study on Income Dynamics’ Childhood Retrospective Circumstances Study (CRCS). Secondly, they use the concept of social capital—who you know and what they have to offer—to theorize as to which young people are more likely to establish these beneficial relationships.

They found that younger non-Hispanic Black women, those who were raised by their biological mother and a non-biological father, and those who grew up in the South or Western U.S. were more likely to have an informal mentor. “While the finding related to gender is consistent with previous work, these other demographic findings are of note,” reports Gowdy, who is now a faculty member at North Carolina A&T State University. Also consistent with previous research, their data show that increased family resources are associated with a higher likelihood of informal mentorship. “Interestingly, our hypothesis that increased access to social capital would be associated with a higher likelihood of informal mentorship had mixed support. Neighborhood quality, a broad measure of social capital, was not associated with informal mentoring. In addition, measures of mobility—moving and the number of schools attended in childhood—were also inconsistently associated with mentoring.”

This study differs from previous research in that it is focused exclusively on how childhood experiences (age 0–17) were associated with mentoring in emerging and young adulthood (age 17–30). In this way, it can be considered an investigation of the factors that set young people on a trajectory in which they do or do not have informal mentoring relationships. According to Gowdy, this research contributes important new knowledge to the growing literature base on informal mentorship. “This study should be considered in tandem with the existing literature to help build interventions promoting mentoring relationships for those least likely to have one on their own,” she concludes.