What do parenting teenagers and mentorship have in common?
I have three sons. They are 6, 13 and 15. My hope is that they will all grow up to be fully functioning adults, who find their own way to contribute to the world. That they can make their own choices, learn from their mistakes and generally be good, kind people.
As they grow up, I find myself in a constant internal battle between my mothering instinct to keep them safe, and letting them make their own mistakes and learn from them. When they were small it was maybe about how high I let them climb in that tree, or when to let them hold the sharp knife on their own when cooking together. It was more about their physical safety - teaching them to become responsible for that.
The oldest two are bigger than me now, so their physical safety is less of a concern (until they start to learn to drive but that’s a challenge for another day…..). So it’s now more about how closely I monitor (nag about) GCSE revision. Or how late they can stay out at night. Or helping them to understand the dangers of the online world they inhabit that I struggle to understand myself.
My “keep them safe vs let them make mistakes” internal battle is now more about their emotional and mental wellbeing, I guess.
I’ve learned (later in life than I would have liked) that I can only take 50% of the responsibility for the success of my adult relationships and interactions. But how does that play out with our children? With my six-year-old, surely the health of our relationship is far more than 50% my responsibility. And when they are adults, it will be closer to 50/50. But how about when they are 13, or 15, or 17? Navigating that gradual shift, I think, is part of the tightrope of parenting.
So, what does all of this have to do with mentorship?
Well, what’s the aim when you work as a mentor? I think it’s to nurture and support a younger or less experienced person to become excellent in their own right. To offer the benefit of our skills and experience, but with the ultimate aim of them becoming fully functioning, able to make their own choices, learn from their mistakes and think things through for themselves.
I don’t think it’s that different to be honest.
I’ve certainly heard others say that parenting is the most important (and most challenging) leadership responsibility that we can take on and for me, I think that’s true.
As my kids get older, what they really need is to be able to think a situation through for themselves. Perhaps with the aid of some knowledge or experience from me, but if I keep telling them what to do – how will they ever learn how to think things through for themselves? Solve their own problems? And that’s what we want for those we lead and mentor as well isn’t it? Otherwise they will need us forever!
If we want anyone to learn to thrive independently in the world (be that in life or work) the number one skill that they need to learn, is to think independently. And the skills we need to support the development of independent thinking are very different to the traditional view of mentorship. Which is more of a one way imparting of wisdom and knowledge.
So how do we do that? Especially when often – as parents or mentors – we are asked for our opinions and advice.
I think the first step is to simply listen longer. To first ask “well, before I give you my thoughts, what do you think?” and then sit back and listen.
And then when they’ve finished, perhaps ask “And what more do you think?” or some other variation of the AWE (And What Else) question that Michael Bungay-Stanier talks about in his book The Coaching Habit.
Often the issue gets resolved just with a bit of thinking time. And sometimes the REAL issue reveals itself, which puts you both in a much more informed position.
We can also demonstrate how we think. Let them hear us think out loud. Muddle through a problem. Perhaps articulate our emotional reaction and how it is affecting our thinking.
It’s vulnerable to let our kids (or someone we mentor or lead) hear us in this place of uncertainty, but it can also be invaluable to their learning and a powerful antidote to imposter syndrome.
So I try to swallow my pride, and ignore that voice that tells me I always need to be the one in control!
Tell your story
Then I think there’s one final thing we can consider.
I heard a phrase last year from the fabulous Sophie Stephenson that I thought was beautiful and very insightful.
An opinion is a story that's been robbed of its narrative. Stories connect us, and opinions divide us.
So rather than “I think you should ……. ”, or “If I were you I would ……” try giving the story behind the opinion. Perhaps “I found myself in a similar situation, this is what I did, and this is how it went”.
Moving from using the language of “you” to the language of “I” moves us away from opinion and into story.
It offers the value of our experience and knowledge in a way that the other person can take in, consider, and keep thinking for themselves.
I think stats show that advice only works about 12% of the time anyway!
Listen, Model & Tell your story
These are the three foundational pillars of mentorship that I teach and practice.
I’ve realised this summer that it could also be the foundation of my parenting.
So, what do mentorship and parenting teenagers have in common? Quite a lot I think!
What do you think?