As self-reported stress among American youth climbs and related mood disorders – including anxiety and depression – abound, is it possible that one key to healthier living might lie in mentoring relationships? In a word, yes.
According to America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit devoted to helping to create conditions of success for all young people, “Caring adults are the centerpieces of children’s development. They serve as guides, caretakers and advisers, who give positive and productive guidance throughout their development.” The Alliance goes on to say that while parents come first, it is essential that young people have other caring adults present in all areas of their lives, calling their influence “substantially beneficial.”
Those benefits include better academic performance, enhanced relationships with parents and peers, reduced initiation of alcohol and other drug use, decreases in violence and increases in positive feelings around personal identity.
While the positive impact of formal – or matched – mentors has been documented for some time, the influential role of informal ones, such a teachers, coaches, camp counselors and grandparents, has become more widely understood.
Despite the obvious age gaps in grandparent-grandchild relationships, the parents of their parents can, and often do, play a monumentally consequential role in shaping the ideas, attitudes and behaviors of youth.
Not insignificantly, such relationships are also mutually beneficial when it comes to mental health, even when grandchildren grow up. A 2013 study at Boston College showed that giving emotional support to or receiving it from grandchildren affected the emotional well-being of both the elder and the younger. This benefit included fewer symptoms of depression. Sara M. Moorman of the college’s Department of Sociology and the Institute on Aging concluded, “The greater emotional support grandparents and adult grandchildren received from one another, the better their psychological health.”
For his part, writer Jeff Anderson documents ten reasons why grandparents matter more than ever.
1. Grandparents make a difference in their grandchildren’s lives.
2. More children have grandparents.
3. Intergenerational households are on the rise.
4. Many children are raised by their grandparents.
5. Grandparents have spending power.
6. Grandparents give back to the community.
7. Grandparents can use a computer.
8. Grandparents love their role.
9. Grandparents have valuable experience.
10. Today’s grandparents are active and involved.
Further making the case for grandparents as mentors is Allison Gilbert in her article “Why Kids Need Grandparents.” She quotes a New Jersey doctor, Tom Vates, as saying, "Imagine your child is a sculpture and your entire family – including your parents – are the shapers of that sculpture. You and your wife can provide 120,000 little pushes of the fingers to mold it and shape it, but your children are always going to miss some of the pushes that would have made the sculpture complete. You can still see the face, you can still see what it is, but some of those influences won't ever impact the final product.”
Speaking to that sense of a final product, 16-year-old Charlton McArdle, a junior at the Latin School of Chicago and a student member of the national advisory board at the Center for Adolescent Research & Education (CARE), told me that his grandparents have had “a very large presence” in his life. He said they have imparted lessons – sometimes even outlasting a lifetime – of determination, patience, manners and how to best interact with other people.
On the occasion of his maternal grandfather’s 80th birthday, Charlton wrote, “Dear Granddad -- 80 years is a huge milestone in a man’s life. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all,’ and you have lived. You have taught everyone around you more than they could learn from anyone else. You have taught me that every moment in my life is important, and that I should always try to do the most with the people I care for. If there were more people in the world like you, it would be a much better world.”
Interestingly, Charlton says he feels similarly influenced by his maternal grandmother, Lala, whom he refers to as “the greatest woman I never knew.” Of her he wrote, “When I was four, you passed away from cancer. I don’t have any memories of you. You left me with only the stories that others remember and share and the photographs you took. I sometimes think about what it would be like if I had gotten to know you, if I had a couple more years to hear your voice and sit on your lap, let you touch my heart like you did to everyone else. My French would have gotten better, that’s for sure. Even though I never knew you, I feel like I have. You surround my life, and that is weird to think about. Someone I don’t remember is everywhere in my life.”
Charlton’s tribute continues, “When a little bit of luck hits me, I always think of you. You dropped those twenty dollars on the street for me to find. Sometimes you even say ‘hi’ to me in person, in the form of a dragonfly. Whenever a dragonfly zips around my head and then stops to inspect me, I whisper ‘Hello, Lala.’ Every time I score a goal in hockey, you race through my mind; you gave me that push of strength when I didn’t think I could push anymore. Thank you for being an inspiration to everyone you knew. Thank you for being an inspiration to me.”
Inspiring tales of mentors who matter.