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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #2, 8/3/2006

The Problems of Mentoring

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

The single most important source of most of the world's problems is a lack of parental resources. Poverty, war, crime, violence — all of these things ultimately trace to too many children and insufficient care.

It is easy enough to produce a child. A single act of indiscretion will take care of that. It is vastly more difficult to raise a child and turn him into a balanced and productive human being.

The vast majority of the children on this planet, and even in this city, do not have adequate adult attention. What attention they do get is often highly defective, from parents who are little more than immature children themselves. They twist their children around with contradictory demands, and the child can never really talk to them.

For almost every child passing through the juvenile justice system, you can say, "There's a kid who needs a friend."

He may have friends his own age and legal parents who provide food and shelter, but he does not have an older mentor, like a parent should be. These kids would benefit from any kind of caring attention from a stable adult.

There is a similar problem for babies in Child Haven. They are fed and their diapers are changed, but the are not necessarily given the intensive fondling and talking to that are required for healthy development.

At the same time that children have a desperate need for adult attention, there is an enormous waste of adult resources all around us.

For example, here in Las Vegas, you can walk into any casino and find hundreds of people wasting their time, not to mention their money, on useless pursuits. If only a tiny portion of those adult resources could be directed toward children, we would greatly improve our future society.

Of course, it is more complicated that that. For one thing, casino patrons are IDIOTS. They may be adults in body, but their brains are tiny little pea-sized things. The fact that they are engaged in this sort of activity at all suggests a certain innate narcissism that may not benefit children very much.

Still, there are a lot of resources wasted by otherwise intelligent and sensitive adults. We all spend a lot of time on things that just aren't important: watching TV, interior decorating, etc. We do it because it is easy, and it isn't really obvious how else we should spend our time.

It would be nice if we could somehow unite all the wasted adult resources with the desperate needs of children. Unfortunately, there are many barriers: social, legal, psychological. You can't just walk into some defective household and start playing with the kids. The parents will either be paranoid and not let you in, or you will soon be overwhelmed by the needs of that family as they start to depend on you.

What is needed is some measured form of interaction with children while preserving boundaries. Big Brothers/Big Sisters is one approach. You are assigned to a certain child who you spend a certain amount of time with, with the explicit permission of the parent.

Another idea is a program at Child Haven that invites volunteers to come in and play with the babies. (We know this program exists, but we know little about it.)

In the juvenile justice system, service providers -- such as counselors, PO's and P.D. social workers -- often become temporary mentors for children. In the foster care system, CASAs can often play a similar pseudo-parental role. These interactions are usually very limited in duration, however, and they are directed toward a specific goal: getting the kid off drugs, say, or representing his wishes in court.

In both juvenile justice and foster care in Las Vegas, there is no real "mentor" program that I am aware of — and probably for good reason. It is hard to establish boundaries on something like this, and the potential liabilities are huge.

If you decide you are going to be a kid's "friend", where does it start and end? Every kids' needs are huge, especially if their parent is emotionally defective. Caseworkers and service providers pretty much know where their boundaries are: You are here here to achieve a concrete goal. Once that goal is achieved, the relationship will end. The kid may still need a friend, but you can't do it outside of your formal role. (For one thing, you've got plenty of other clients to worry about.)

There are vast underutilized adult resources all around us — often from adults who probably would want to help if it was easy for them — and there are vast childhood needs. For the most part, the two will probably never get together, because it is too strategically complicated.

When adults have the parenting urge, they tend to put a quarter in the machine and produce a child themselves. It's so easy. That new product will absorb their resources for the next 20 years, while the needs of the children already here remain unaddressed.

I am not sure that the solution to the mentoring problem is another government or nonprofit program.

Look at Big Brothers/Big Sisters. They have boxes all over town where you can deposit your used goods, which will be sold to raise funds. Why is such fundraising even needed? Big Brothers/Big Sisters ought to be a simple matter of assigning a volunteer to a child. Why do you need funding for that?

The problem is that any organization of any kind incurs liabilities. You can't just assign a volunteer to a child. You have to process applications from both the volunteer and the child's family. You have to do a background check to make sure the volunteer isn't a pedophile. You have to conduct orientations and monitor the relationship after it is established. You have to maintain liability insurance. You have to have a board of directors. You have to file the appropriate forms with the government, and you need a staff to keep track of all your recordkeeping. Then a building to house the staff.

Most of the fundraising that Big Brothers/Big Sisters does is essentially paying for bureaucratic overhead. Any well-meaning organization is going to fall into this trap. You can't just say, "I have a good idea." Once you start involving others in your idea, you become an "organization" and start down that slippery slope toward being all organization and very few good works.

One of the undeniable advantages of biological parenting is that you bypass all of the liability issues. You don't need a license and don't have to prove even the most basic child care requirements. All you need is sperm and egg.

If all you want to do is mentor a kid who you aren't related to and don't have an organizational connection to, it can be difficult, even if the kid is obviously needy. If one happens to be male, there is a presumption of pedophilia from the start. Always, there is paranoia to overcome. The needier the family is, the greater the social and psychological barriers tend to be.

If you want to adopt a needy child, the government gives you an avenue for that. It is a long a grueling one, and not all adults have the resources to adopt. The government does not give you an option for helping a child stay in his home or cope with his environment. The government has enough trouble managing its caseworkers. It can't support volunteers as well.

When you watch kids pass through the juvenile delinquency courtroom, you see one kid after another who obviously needs attention. Some of them have serious enough issues to be formally "treated." The rest of them are given sanctions and then are passed back to their usually dysfunctional home environments. Many of them are very likable, intelligent and amenable to attention. They just need your time.

In one sense, the support is incredibly simple: The kid just needs a reliable adult friend. In another sense, it is extremely difficult because of all the invisible barriers between you and him.

If there is not an organization to address this problem, maybe there is a philosophy. There is nothing illegal or improper in an adult befriending a needy child, without any organization or authority. You just have to have a protocol for doing it.

You have to be able to deal with the boundary issues and the dependency issues. You have to know where you should and should not intervene. You have to defend your own needs and interests and not be absorbed by the needs of others. Even a CASA or a Big Brother is going to find that these things are really complicated. If you befriend a kid, how much of his problems are yours? How involved do you become in his family? How much of your own resources are you prepared to spend?

Institutions are comfortable because they give us nice clear boundaries. You solve the specific problem in front of you, and that's it. But children also need something that institutions can't provide.

It is just like playing with the babies at Child Haven. It's really simple, yet it's beyond the realm of organizations. Kids just need attention, without any goals. They need a friend.

[End of allocated time.]


8/4/06: A reader points out that the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth has a mentoring program.



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