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The importance of buddies

My daughter’s public homeschool program has had a buddy system since we started there five years ago. Since it spans K through 8, there are lots of opportunities for older kids to pair up with younger kids.

I always thought the buddy system was nice—when it worked, my daughter was able to complete an activity that before she might not have been able to. But I didn’t realize just how important the buddy system could be until everything clicked.

Last year, my daughter was pretty much not able to deal with school at all. She tried out two different class days, and finally ended up not wanting to go at all. But the activities she did enjoy, I was surprised to see, were the ones she did with her Big Buddy.

Her buddy is a teenage girl she’s known since kindergarten, a graduate of her homeschool program who now volunteers there as a high schooler. I don’t remember them connecting much when her buddy was younger. But somehow, as her buddy grew from a shy girl into a self-assured teen, a chemistry grew between them.

Last summer, my daughter was so fed up with her inability to handle class days at school that she was insisting she wanted to go to our neighborhood public school full-time. (If that sounds like a weird way to solve a problem, well, welcome to my life!) It wasn’t until she found out that her buddy was going to volunteer at her school on her class day that she gave up on this idea. Suddenly, she wanted to go to school.

Lots of homeschoolers and other “fringe” educators have been talking lately about the importance of mentors, and how our culture has lost mentoring as our society has become more fragmented. Some blame this loss on parents giving up their obligation to educate their kids to the state. As public schooling became more prominent, they say, families stopped thinking that education was primarily their responsibility, and community members stopped feeling responsible for taking youngsters under their wings.

I am less willing to blame public education (which I support) than a variety of cultural trends: Culturally, we are losing a sense of what parenting is. We are less likely to talk to our neighbors. We are less likely to live in the same community we work in. We are fearful of strangers—and even our kids’ baseball coach—as potential abusers. We are the perfect product of tabloid newspapers and sensational TV.

Accepting the importance of mentoring requires us to question our cultural messages. Mentoring requires that we believe that the adults in our community have an obligation and a right to help us in raising our children. Mentoring requires us to allow that our child will go out into the world without our protective arms about them. Mentoring requires adults to express interest in other people’s kids, even though adults have been taught the lesson, over and over again, that if they do that, they’re likely to suffer from our suspicions about adults who actually like kids.

If you look at any successful person, it’s more likely than not that s/he had a mentor, an adult who shared interests and who supported the young person’s learning. Sometimes that person is a parent, but more often it’s someone they came across as they focused on their areas of interest. A mentor is a guide, a coach, and in a gentle way, a critic. Americans love stories that feature strong mentors, but somehow in our culture, we have lost a sense of how important mentoring is.

For my daughter, having someone at school who is there for her and who only wants to support her has been invaluable. The teachers in her program are wonderful, but it’s her buddy she looks up to the most. Her buddy is the reason she can make it through. As she develops her interests and grows, this is a valuable lesson for her and for us. Sometimes it’s not a teacher or a parent that’s needed to help a young person develop her skills.

Sometimes it’s just another person on the path ahead of her. And when that person is willing to look back and lend a hand, the most difficult path is easy to navigate.

Posted in Culture, Parenting.

4 Responses

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  1. shell says

    I really appreciate this post. After reading The Wonder of Boys by Michael Gurian, I realized how important it would be to find good mentors for my boys. Yet I have no idea how I’ll find them. I hope the opportunity comes as they get older and involved in more things.

  2. Suki says

    I think it’s a hard thing to do, whether kids are in school or homeschooled. Finding the right match means getting your kids out there, interacting with people who share their interests. I don’t think it often happens quite so young, but eventually your teens will explore their interests and find others who share them. Neither of my kids is willing to go to the program we have locally where the adults consciously act as mentors (through a nature program), but that’s another way to go.

  3. Holly says

    I’ve been mourning the loss of many aspects of the culture that I was raised in and I think you’ve really put your finger on a valuable phenomenon. I am so grateful for the mentors my kids do have and believe that our family “gets” that and tries to find our opportunities to carry this on for others.

  4. Suki says

    And it’s very important that your family actually focuses on this. I think that it’s possible to have an average American life and never notice that it’s missing. But if enough families start looking for it consciously, it will once again become part of our culture.

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