How Does Project Based Mentoring Fit In?
“When people help us to feel good about who we are, they are really helping us to love the meaning of what we create.”—Fred Rogers
COVID 19 has created a new intimacy. OMG, right?
Within our very own four walls we experience together new fears, new boundaries, new proximities, new emotions. Home becomes a three-ring circus, juggling a myriad of change and individual reactions to that change.
I don’t know about you, but for me—at least 12 days in—these are some amazingly special times too. The dichotomy is that we are creating memories: we are living through a historic trauma—and we are simultaneously bonded as a nation and a globe in survival. However, while we are more united in our fight, we are more distant from our community, (isolation) our main street, (closed) and our neighbors (6 feet).
This imposed isolation from the world brings us closer to home, our sanctuaries of safety. Now, we are bonded more than ever to our loved ones, and we are huddling in. In some ways, this whole experience harkens back to olden days (the ones your grandparents used to talk about). When Time – Moved slowly. When Mom was in the kitchen. When we spent time … eating meals together. Time … to Stop and Listen. Time … to create and play together. Time to try new things. OMG—What an opportunity!
Between my youthful ages of 6 and 16, my dad was in charge on Sundays. I think, in hindsight, he made Sundays special (although I probably thought less so then). You see, Sundays were always the family day. Dad had a super-duper strong work ethic. He loved leading us in projects. He would teach us a method, and then put us to task. At 6 years old—and from then forward, most Sundays—we built the backyard into a multitiered, 250 square-foot terrace (as big as a house).
Yours truly learned to dig up dirt, mix cement, lay brick, pour foundations, build flower beds, and level flagstone. As a matter of fact, Dad was such a leader that all the neighborhood kids would come over and join in. Dad got free labor and management training, while we learned stuff, worked hard, and had fun. Here’s how he kept us coming back for more. At the end of each Sunday when dusk was falling, Dad would line us up by height (just like the Sound of Music, but without the whistle). He would talk to us collectively about how much we accomplished for the day, and he would walk around the portion of the terrace that was completed, calling out each person’s contribution. Then he would talk about our goal for next Sunday. Most importantly, he would give us each a promotion. Yup. After a days’ work, you received a new ranking. Over a ten-year period, I moved from lieutenant 2-3,4,5 up to 15, and then I was promoted through 15 sergeant positions, then admiral and so on. You get the idea.
I remember feeling pride, comradery, a sense of accomplishment, a new skill learned, teamwork, and a closeness to Dad. I’m also certain these experiences influenced my attitude toward work.
To that end, (you can see why) I am a firm believer that success and perseverance can be taught in the home. After 21 years of mentoring youth, I can tell you that I have seen too many cases where it is not. I believe that the tone parents set, the boundaries outlined, the experiences shared as kids become adults, can make a tremendous difference in the young adults’ abilities to navigate relationships and careers in the 21st century.
In Robert D. Putnam’s recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, he suggests that in contrast to when we were all kids, youth today cannot escape the risk factors that infiltrate their school, community, and home environments. We need to be doing something different.
Without positive and significant adult role models, Putnam says this generation is far more likely to experience a lack of self-esteem, suffer from depression, experience suicidal thoughts, or have a feeling of disenfranchisement.
Create a Safe Space
One of the most important suggestions I have for all mentoring relationships–and that certainly applies to parent/child relationships–is to first create a safe space. Especially in today’s toxic and judgmental environment, our youth need to witness that ideas can be openly discussed without fear of harsh criticism or judgment. When a parent presents that environment at home–where there is empathy and active listening (not just the obligatory “uh huh” while we continue with what we are doing)–that parent offers something that will have a lasting impact: a judgment-free zone where creativity and idea-generation can flourish. Once your child realizes that his ideas can be welcomed and even cherished, the bridles are off, and you have effectively “freed” his mind to explore what else he can dream and accomplish. I have witnessed the before and after for these transitions, and they are powerful. They are life-changing. In fact, as Chris Gardner, the author of The Pursuit of Happyness, once told me, when we mentor with this mindset, we are not only impacting this generation; we are impacting their kids, the next generation, as well.
One of my favorite writers, who has also helped me in my own life as a mentor, is Dr. Carol Dweck, the renowned Stanford University psychologist and author of “Mindset.” I had the wonderful opportunity to speak extensively with Dweck about mentoring and parenting. One of her core mantras is to praise challenges and progress, not innate qualities. In other words, we should be teaching young adults that there will always be hurdles; it’s how you overcome those hurdles that matters in life. We should be praising the ability to come out of difficulties. She also stated that, whether youth are aware of it or not, they are terrible at estimating their own abilities. The immense power to believe in oneself can strongly affect a person’s desire to learn, her overarching achievement, and her life’s potential. That’s what we as parents and mentors must instill.
How can you start your kids thinking about that mindset? I like to ask, “What was your challenge today, and how did you work through it?” Take yourself out of the equation. Let your child share how he identified a problem, and how he overcame it. “What did you learn from that?” This could easily be an entire dinner conversation – and rightly so.
Encourage a Project, and Put Your “Kid” in Charge
In my book, Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America, I describe in detail what I call “Project Based Mentoring.” The model stems from Project Based Learning theories, but adds a skilled mentor to support the student and project. Through the project, these two different generations are given something to “do” together, and the project is both educational and transformative. The project is frequently based on tackling realistic problems with real-world application. (kind of like building the terrace)
Importantly, however, there are important guidelines for that relationship. (of course, this is age and project dependent) It is the student or the child who is the idea generator, the responsible party, and the driver of the activity and its execution. Together, the mentor and mentee/ (parent/ child) share a mutual goal of planning the project framework within a timeline to achieve successful completion. Eventually, in the classroom, the students will give a public oral defense. The project and the relationship mimic workplace assignments and intergenerational (and often cross-cultural) work relationships.
I suggest this sort of project is just as developmental and experiential if it is embarked by parent/child teams, and you review the project’s success in an “oral defense” at the end. “What was your challenge in doing this?” “What did you learn?” “How would you do it differently the next time?” “If you were teaching another to do this project—what would you say?”
What Project Ideas come to mind right now —, as long as you have time, proximity, and creativity in abundance? Has your daughter wanted to paint her room a different color? Has your son been wanting to plan a game or activity for the family? Could you create your own hallmark cards for all the upcoming holidays? Are there new recipes that your kids want to make? What about planting a vegetable garden? How bout organizing a closet? Can you tackle creating a collage? Creating a family video? Turning old photos into a film with underscored music? These could be excellent projects in which the parents teach responsibility and project planning, while also encouraging creativity and positive mindsets.
Based on my own years of mentoring, I can tell you this formulaic relationship works. Young adults, often for the first time, are taking ownership, understanding process and plans, and developing skills that are relevant to an actual career. They are seeing first-hand that strategizing and hard work can yield results. The youth develop character and competence, and through both, they develop confidence. And naturally, bonds form that can have a profound impact on everyone involved (even the parent/mentor).
Give Them “Veto Power”
Importantly, the parent(s) need to remember that their role is to encourage critical thinking, but not direct the project. In fact, this is an opportunity to give up (that’s what I said!) control – and see how your child can take on, enthusiastically, more responsibility with time. You should absolutely be asking questions and playing devil’s advocate in “what if” scenarios. But I would suggest giving the “veto power” to your child. In order for a child to take on more authority, you have to give up some of it. “No, mom, I really do want to paint the room black.”
Cringe! I know! But keep in mind the ultimate goal: instilling long-term values and hopefully a few lessons learned and/or disappointments overcome along the way. You are preparing your child for the real world of decision-making.
Make it Fun
Finally, it is your job to make sure this project stays fun. If there is a hurdle or negative outcome, help your child collect evidence on what happened. Don’t let the conversation or thinking turn to, “I’m so stupid,” as students will often say. Keep the conversation and comments constructive and positive.
Likewise, make sure your child’s effort, and not innate abilities, are praised. “What did you learn today?” “What did you try hard at?” Dweck says it is actually counterproductive to compliment an innate talent, physical attribute, or skills. Give your student this mentality and you have given them one of the most valuable lessons in life: “You are in charge of your learning and your mindset. It’s a choice.”
In summary, I hope you take on this unique isolation as an Opportunity. That’s the first Quarantine Mindset. The second is to play around with incorporating Project Based Mentoring in your own family dynamic. The ideas shared above give you some ways to step back and listen to your kids creative leanings, and spirit them along toward a plan and a project that is “theirs”… It’s about education and ownership more than expediency and perfection.
Most importantly, from my heart to yours, stay safe and make the most of your special time.