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an adult matters

An interview with Mark Kiselica, an authority on the counseling and mentoring of boys, in which he talks about the impact a caring adult can have in a youth's life.

Mark S. Kiselica, a professor in the Department of Counselor Education at The College of New Jersey, is the author of numerous publications on advocacy work for teenage fathers and troubled boys and co-editor of the Handbook of Counseling Boys and Adolescent Males.

What are the most important things to know about an adolescent's development and needs? What's going on during this period that suggests how important a caring adult can be in a youth's life?

There are several important things going on in a teenager's life. Although teenagers begin to show autonomy and a sense of differentiation from family, at the same time they remain very tied to them. So one of the challenges is for the family, the parents in particular, to continue to have a relationship with the teenager, and to exert a positive influence on the teenager's decisions. And for that adolescent to feel a sense of rootedness -- that he still has a secure base from which he can explore the world.

And then moving outward from the family, the two most important spheres are school and peers. He wants to establish a peer network, a group of friends, people that he can rely on for fun and camaraderie and safety. And in addition to that, a sense of belonging, and security, and growth at school, so that he can facilitate both his educational and career development. So those are three things right there.

'How do I get boys to talk to me?'  Thats the question [I always get asked.]  People often don't know how to get boys to open up.

But in addition, he has to face the challenges of clarifying his own identity; who he is as a person, as it relates to all these things. What type of son am I? What type of brother? What type of friend? What type of person am I emerging in terms of my career identity? All of these influence the identity that he is. So identity development is a big piece of this.

And sort of a subset of both identity and peer relationships are sexual relationships, whether or not he has a heterosexual identity or homosexual identity, and relating those to the type of relationships he's going to have. Exploring his sexuality, and developing safe sexual behaviors. And then finally, addressing all the temptations that are out there in the world; not just sex, but drugs, the lure of gangs and so forth. Making good decisions about the temptations that are out there in life.

Do adolescent boys face particular challenges and have needs that differ from those of girls?

Certain problems are more common to boys than girls. For example, boys are much more likely to have some sort of developmental delay that affects their adjustment in school; boys lag behind girls in their brain development in a number of important structures that have implications for their readiness to read and write, and use language effectively. And boys are much more likely to be aggressive and to be involved in delinquent acts. So those are the two primary ones, but there are other statistics that I have compiled.

What does it mean to be a mentor to an adolescent? What are the qualities needed?

They should be caring, they should be non-judgmental, they should be willing to offer their time. They should be visible in the community or familiar with the community from where boys come from. They should know how to use community resources, and they themselves should have positive self-esteem and positive identity. And as a result of all of these qualities, adolescents will tend to trust them because there's research that shows they prefer working with healthcare providers who are trustworthy, pay attention to them and are nice to them, and can make them feel comfortable talking one on one.

And when an adult has these qualities, what then can happen?

Cody with his step grandmother Liz

Cody with his step grandmother Liz

When they have these qualities, what we find is that when mentoring programs are offered, they help to give boys the sense of connection to their communities. And research shows that when boys feel a sense of connection in community and in school -- and there are both school based mentoring programs and community based mentoring programs -- those programs help the kids to feel a sense of connection. And when they know that there is at least one caring adult that they can rely on and turn to for help with difficulties, they're much less likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex, drug use, and gang involvement.

Furthermore, research has shown that in peer mentoring programs -- where you have caring teenagers, who under the guidance of professionals offer their support to other teenagers -- we find that both for the peers who are providing the service and those who are the recipients of the service, they have increased self-esteem, they have a decrease in [their] sense of social isolation, and they develop and enhance their social skills.

What factors make mentoring effective? For example, does it depend on the number of hours that are given to mentoring an adolescent each month?

I don't know if research quantifies a specific number of hours, but there are two qualities to mentoring programs that seem to be effective. The first quality is consistent availability. In other words, the teenager knows that over time "I can rely on this individual." And sort of related to that, the second quality is flexible hours. So that the youth knows over the course of time they can rely on this person or this program or these people in this program, and that they can drop in when they need to.

And then, in terms of hours, it varies from teenager to teenager. Some boys just need to drop in every once in a while and sort of get a little booster shot, and their visits are brief. And that really varies with their personality type, and how limited or extensive their other resources are in their lives. And this of course applies to girls too.

What would surprise a person to know about mentoring?

Probably the biggest surprise with regard to mentoring boys is that women can be effective mentors. There was a national demonstration project called The Teen Father Collaboration. Its purpose was to provide supportive services to young men who were fathers during their teenage years. And they found that much to people's surprise, women could be very effective mentors and counselors with young men who are teenage fathers.

And the key for success were the qualities that I described earlier. And so sometimes people have a bias that when starting a mentoring program for at-risk boys, they immediately think of men. And it's not a bad idea to start with men, but they should not preclude women -- the "Country Boys" film definitely demonstrates that.

What are the questions you're most frequently asked as an expect on mentoring?

Chris with Mitzi Crisp

Chris and David School principal Mitzi Crisp

"How do I get boys to talk to me?" That's the question. People often don't know how to get boys to open up. Basically, what we have to do is adapt our way of relating, to boys' ways of relating. And what that means is, when boys form natural friendships, they do so by doing things together. They do it through sports, they do it by working on projects together, by doing things side by side, by talking [in] little bits and pieces. Not necessarily, face-to-face, heart-to-heart, conversation, although that can happen, too. And so much of what we have to do to be effective in getting boys to open up is to relate to them in their relational style.

So throw a football while you're talking, go for a walk, have something to eat together. Give him something to read and don't necessarily expect him to have a lot to say, but answer the questions that he might have after he's done reading something. If we do these things, we sort of join boys where they are and at their pace, and then they're likely to trust us and use us.

In recent years, the issue of boys and their well-being has become a nationally recognized issue. What explains this new awareness?

What happened is that since the 1970s, women's groups began to raise awareness about the particular adjustment difficulties of girls. And organizations of women's groups have for years been raising awareness about gender gap and how women have been short-changed and hurt by different types of male practices. And sort of in response to that, there was a group of professionals who began to say it's very legitimate that we're asking questions about girls. And in light of that, what are the particular adjustment difficulties of boys?

So, since the late 1990s, there has been a growing number of professionals who have begun to examine that problem, publish their works and get the media's attention about these particular adjustment difficulties in boys that I mentioned earlier.

And what are the particular challenges for a mentor in getting through to a girl?

I'm not an expert on mentoring girls, but I can offer part of an answer. The first is that girls tend to be a bit more comfortable with their feelings and a bit more accustomed to utilize poetry and music and media of that sort, to express and access what their experiences. And I'm not saying that you can't use those with boys, but as sort of an icebreaker I often find that those are very powerful with girls. So, although there are considerations that overlap with both genders -- you have to be caring, not judgmental, ensure kids of privacy, and understand their community and the particular traditions and cultural norms in the community -- I find that with boys it helps to sort of approach things by, as I said, using a football, going for a walk, playing games, doing that sort of thing. Whereas, with girls I often find it's easier to have more direct conversations that involve feelings, and use poetry and art, and that sort of thing to help them express themselves.

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posted jan. 9, 2006

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