Mentoring in 4-H

By Stephen Hamilton


Over the past two decades mentoring programs have become a centerpiece of youth development. One source of their attraction is that many adults think fondly of mentors they had and are pleased to be able to “pay it forward.” Another is that it sounds like an easy and inexpensive way to open new opportunities for disadvantaged children and youth. While the first is a sound rationale, the second, sadly, is not completely true.

Mentoring programs require substantial investments to work well. Mentoring stands out among youth development programs and practices for the number and depth of evaluations that have been conducted, enough to yield two formal “metaanalyses,” or statistical syntheses of multiple evaluations. (The most recent is by DuBois, Portillo, Rhodes, Silverthorn, & Valentine, 2011.) These have demonstrated consistent positive effects across a wide range of youth development outcomes. The effect sizes are modest, as is true for nearly all program evaluations, but the range of impact is impressive. DuBois and his colleagues (2011, Figure 2) found positive effects on the following broad categories of outcomes: attitudinal/motivational; social/relational; psychological/emotional; conduct problems; academic/school; and physical health.

Mentoring programs exist because the young people who most need mentors are least likely to have them. One of the ways in which parents pass advantages on to their children is by means of their “social capital,” the personal connections that help them achieve their goals. Children whose parents are better educated and better paid are naturally introduced to other adults whose knowledge and social positions make them helpful advisors and advocates. Children whose parents lack those advantages themselves also have fewer opportunities to get to know adults who can help them in these ways.

Consider a 13-year old girl who thinks she might like to become an engineer. A father who is a lawyer probably knows some engineers from his college class, his professional life, church, his fitness club, or the neighborhood. And he can easily ask an engineer acquaintance to talk with his daughter about the work and the kind of education it takes. A girl of the same age growing up in a neighborhood where many people are unemployed and none are professionals may have no idea what an engineer is or does and, if she has, no access to one or to anyone else who can mentor her about a career path. This is precisely the kind of inequality that mentoring programs are designed to overcome.

But it is important to realize that mentoring programs were invented to create and maintain relationships between young people and adults outside the family that in most cases occur naturally, without benefit of a program. When asked about adults outside the family who were important to them in their youth, few adults name a program mentor; they identify instead a teacher who took a special interest in them, a coach, a religious leader, a 4-H club leader. I have met several 4-H educators who have told me they chose their career because of their admiration for a 4-H agent they knew when they were young, which is testimony to mentoring. “Natural” or “informal” mentoring, meaning mentoring outside of a mentoring program, has not been well studied but two studies in particular have yielded hints about its potential. Erikson, McDonald, and Elder (2009) found that disadvantaged youth who had a mentor at school were nearly as likely to enroll in college as their advantaged classmates. McDonald and Lambert (2011) analyzed the data from the same source, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), and found that mentored youth also got better jobs after high school.

One limitation of mentoring programs is that simply calling someone a mentor does not make him/her one. An adult is only a young person’s mentor when the young person regards her or him as a mentor. One source of power in natural mentoring, I suspect, is that mentor and mentee choose one other. No matchmaker is involved. When mentoring programs work it is because the matchmaking worked (as it can in marriages). But failed matches reduce the impact of mentoring programs because their results (which can be negative) are averaged in with the effects of matches that worked.

While it is entirely appropriate that 4-H sponsor mentoring programs (as we do with support from the U. S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention), most of the mentoring 4-Hers receive is not formally designated as such; it happens in the context of the regular 4-H program. Recognition of this natural phenomenon can also lead to its cultivation. Mary Agnes Hamilton and I (Hamilton & Hamilton, 2004) have made the case that developmentally beneficial mentoring relationships are likely to arise when youth and adults jointly engage in goal-directed activities. 4-H projects fit that bill. We have also observed that young people are attracted to adults who convey enthusiasm and are skilled, just the kinds of adults who are likely to participate in 4-H activities, whether as club leaders or short-term advisors for special activities.

What would we do differently if we took seriously the idea of 4-H as a context for natural mentoring? I don’t know. I have some ideas, but my motivation for writing this is to find out what educators think. Volunteers will have some good ideas too. Here are some thoughts in the form of assertions that require refinement and testing.

  • Consider whether what makes the biggest impact on youth development in 4-H may not be the content or the activity but the relationships.
  • Encourage 4-H leaders to be open to forming relationships that extend beyond group activities. Adults may intentionally limit the nature and depth of their involvement with youth because they do not want to overstep boundaries.
  • Give 4-H leaders training and support in how to build and maintain mentoring relationships. Mentoring is a natural relationship but some people are better at it than others and some of what the “naturals” do can be learned.
  • Give young people explicit guidance about what mentors are, why they are important, how to identify a prospective mentor, and how to ask an adult to be a mentor, or ask one adult to ask another on the youth’s behalf. Mentoring is a twoway relationship. Some young people are mentor magnets: adults are drawn to them. Other youth could learn to perform their part as mentees more actively.
  • Work with parents to make sure they are open to and supportive of mentoring relationships their children might form with other adults. Mentors are sometimes thought of as substitute parents, but the research is clear that mentoring has its influence through parents, not despite them (Rhodes, Grossman, & Resch, 2000).

Parent involvement is related to a critical concern about mentoring. The tragic events at Penn State are a reminder that predators can spot vulnerability in the very young people who most need mentoring and then exploit them. Background checks have become a distasteful but essential part of youth programs, and especially mentoring programs. To the extent that 4-H encourages the formation of close relationships between young people and adults outside their families, those adults, whether club leaders or in some other role, should undergo background checks. This procedure helps shield the organization and it offers some protection to young people, but considering that the vast majority of child sexual abusers are family members (30%) or people known to the family (60%) and that most offenses are never reported, background checks are hardly adequate. More important is making sure that young people have someone they can confide in when someone they trust makes them feel uncomfortable. Fortunately abuse is rare and abuse by someone a young person regards as a mentor is unlikely. Making the benefits of mentoring more widely available requires us to see how such a relationship fits into the set of relationships in a young person’s life and how those relationships can be mutually reinforcing.


DuBois, D.L., Portillo, N., Rhodes, J.E., Silverthorn, N., & Valentine, J.C. (2011). How effective are mentoring programs for youth? A systematic assessment of the evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 12(2): 57-91.

Erickson L.D., McDonald S., & Elder Jr. G.H. (2009). Informal mentors and education: Complementary or compensatory resources? Sociology of Education, 82(4), 344-367.

Hamilton, S.F., & Hamilton, M.A. (2004). Contexts for mentoring: Adolescent-adult relationships in workplaces and communities. In R.M. Lerner & L. Steinberg (Eds.) Handbook of adolescent psychology. New York: Wiley.

McDonald, S., & Lambert, J. (2011). The long arm of mentoring: Informal adolescent mentoring and employment outcomes in young adulthood. Unpublished paper prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor.

Rhodes, J. E., Grossman, J. B., & Resch, N. L. (2000). Agents of change: Pathways through which mentoring relationships influence adolescents’ academic adjustment. Child Development, 71, 1662–1671.