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You don’t need to be a parent to build meaningful relationships with kids

Kids of all ages benefit from community ties with adults who aren’t in their immediate families. What could that look like in practice?

On any given weeknight in the early 1990s, Athena Palmer’s house was full of people. A mining accident had upended Palmer’s family, grievously injuring her dad and spurring her mother to attend dental school. This required moving the whole family away from their small Appalachian hometown to Lexington, Kentucky.

But it was her mother’s decades-younger classmates who really made an impression. Palmer was young and homesick, and her older sister was a struggling teen. Encouraged by Palmer’s mother, the dental students started coming over to score a free meal and study. They kept showing up for the food and the camaraderie, and later to support Palmer herself. The effects of this period of extended community would reverberate for the next 30 years.

“In this moment, she collected these people,” Palmer says of her mother, “and the gift it gave me was I didn’t go through this really dark period alone.”

Supportive relationships are vital for everyone. The saying “it takes a village to raise a child,” acknowledges that parents can’t do it by themselves, but “it doesn’t necessarily acknowledge how much kids need the village,” says historian Stephanie Coontz.

Coontz, author of the forthcoming book For Better and Worse: The Problematic Past and Uncertain Future of Marriage, has spent her career studying marriage, family, and gender roles. Throughout human history, childrearing has been a much more communal project than it is in many societies today, she says. Not only did this make life easier for caregivers, it also conferred benefits to the children themselves.

The United States’ fertility rate is at an all-time low. Birth control, abortion, and options for independent adult living mean that parenthood is not simply the default choice. As individual families are smaller, there’s less opportunity for mixing across ages and generations. This can create a skills gap — many parents have never taken care of a baby before they have their own. It also isolates nearly everyone. Nuclear families feel pressure to handle everything “in house,” and folks without children are often cut off from the natural community networks that form through kids, like schools. In making parenthood optional, we have also accidentally implied that children themselves are some kind of aspirational hobby, rather than the fundamental mechanism of society’s continuation, which everyone has a stake in.

America is overdue for a correction on this issue from the top — investing in child care and early childhood education — to the bottom: treating kids as members of the communities in which they live and showing up for them.

Showing up for kids can happen in informal care networks, formal mentoring relationships, and even advocacy, and they’re all important. Research has shown that being a mentor to a young person is valuable not only for the youth but also for the mentor themselves. Intentionally cultivating these relationships has the potential to distribute domestic labor across a wider group of people in a way that relieves stress on primary caregivers and is deeply beneficial for young people.

Creating meaning in community

Researchers have recognized how important it is for people to have a sense of meaning in their lives. Being a real member of a community, counting on other people and having them count on you, helps fulfill this important psychological need.

Jason, who asked to be identified only by his first name to protect his mentee’s privacy, became a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters in 2019 after he moved to a new town. He says that his relationship with his mentee has integrated him into his new community more fully than he expects would have happened otherwise. His relationship with his mentee (his “Little,” in the organization’s parlance) has been a source of value for him, even as it’s been challenging.

“I really feel like I have played a role in his life that’s been positive. He’s been a positive influence on my life,” Jason says. “Honestly, he just brings me a lot of joy.”

A diverse set of relationships also builds practical skills, says Coontz.

In earlier eras, when there was little separation between home and the marketplace, running errands, taking on household tasks, and interacting with adults were all opportunities for young people to practice the skills that would be needed in adulthood, Coontz says. Far from feeling guilty about working with their children this way, parents in these earlier times would have seen themselves helping educate their children in important skills. Embedding young people in a web of relationships, including with unrelated adults, continues to have benefits today, Coontz continues.

“Firstly, they begin to know that people have different problem-solving skills — they have different weaknesses, they have different strengths,” she says.

Second, she says, adolescents trust the feedback they get from other adults more than feedback from their primary caregivers.

Finally, they’re much more motivated to live up to other people’s expectations when completing a task, Coontz says. Many caregivers will recognize this dynamic at play when kids strive not to disappoint favorite teachers or coaches.

A range of relationships ensures that young people can be on both the giving and receiving end of advice, knowledge, and expertise. Meaningful relationships can form with paid caregivers, including teachers, babysitters, and after-school and camp counselors.

Part of the benefit of these relationships is the problem-solving they incentivize, so parents should hold back from micromanaging when there are conflicts. “Try to help the child strategize, rather than to step in on the child’s behalf,” Coontz says.

Mentoring can take many forms

One of Palmer’s most enduring mentors was Cathy, another of her mom’s classmates and very engaged in local cheerleading. “I was 5 and 6 and needed some sort of outlet,” Palmer remembers. “She eventually became the coach of a cheerleading squad and required me to be on it,” Palmer says. It’s not necessarily what Palmer would have chosen for herself at that age, but she was out of the house and enjoying herself.

Later, when Palmer’s mother became a practicing dentist and the family moved to wealthy Franklin, Tennessee, cheerleading was how Palmer made inroads in her new community.

“I was like, ‘Oh, thank god I have this thing that I would never have joined otherwise,’” Palmer says.

Coontz said that she and her friends regularly hired each other’s children for small jobs, which was easier than paying or nagging their own. Caregivers are often in a position to informally mentor their children’s friends — when carpooling, on play dates, or at social gatherings.

Mentorship of any kind is often a mechanism for getting exposed to new experiences, says Artis Stevens, the president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters. Organizations like BBBS, Mentor, and Friends of the Children systematize that pipeline and make it accessible to more people, though the particulars vary from one organization to another.

Stevens says his goal is for “any positive contributing adult who wants to get engaged, wants to be supportive, has a way to be able to get engaged and become a positive mentor in a young person’s life.” While most Littles are from communities of color, most Bigs, or mentors, are white, he says. Stevens sees this as a valuable source of allyship in a time that sorely needs it.

For LGBTQ+ young people, mentorship can be a lifeline. “When there are people in your own community living their lives, it makes it so much easier to envision yourself with a real future,” says Teri Blauersouth, a licensed professional clinical counselor who regularly works with LGBTQ+ clients.

“Even youth with ultimately supportive family often have a period of wondering, if they are honest about who they are, if that support will be there,” they say.

Mentors can reassure young people that “there are trustworthy, caring adults in the world,” Blauersouth says, ultimately improving their relationships with supportive primary caregivers. In extreme cases, they continued, mentors can offer “material refuge” to youth whose caregivers stop supporting them.

Palmer, who is bisexual, remembers how reassuring it was when, as a child starting to have feelings for other girls, she saw a family friend, Becky, and her girlfriend, warmly and casually included in gatherings. Not only did she see a same-sex relationship modeled by a trusted adult, she saw her parents accept that relationship.

“I didn’t come out when I was 7, but it was still wonderful,” Palmer recalls. “When I did come out, I don’t think I ever questioned that my parents were going to be an issue on that front.”

What’s holding us back from mentoring?

Though the benefits are clear for kids and caregivers, there are obstacles to creating these relationships. They require time, sometimes money, and they’re hard.

“It is a very, very rewarding experience, and a lot of people should really consider it,” says Jason. “But it is difficult. It does take a level of responsibility and maturity and thoughtfulness.”

It also bears noting that many people are afraid of children being harmed by adults who were supposed to be helping them. Even Palmer, the beneficiary of these types of relationships, says she’d be hesitant to form them with a young person now. The sanctity of the nuclear family feels too hard to breach.

“You know, I feel like we’ve been taught explicitly, especially middle-class millennials, to, like, protect your kid from adults that aren’t you,” Palmer says.

“We don’t need to let those concerns rob our children of the potential benefits of these relationships,” says Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University and president of the board of the Council on Contemporary Families.

Primary caregivers and parents should think of being present and involved with their kids’ lives as a safety precaution, says Schoppe-Sullivan. Introduce yourself to coaches and get to know the adults who will be spending time with them.

“It’s important from an early age with your children to develop a close, trusting relationship,” Schoppe-Sullivan says. The goal is that “they feel comfortable talking to you and that you’re not going to judge them for what they say.”

These lines of communication allow for children to tell their parents if another person is making them uncomfortable and to know that those concerns will be taken seriously.

Formal mentoring programs offer institutional assurance for families and adults who want a straightforward option with a proven track record of safety and efficacy. Parents are the number one way young people come into BBBS, says Stevens, and they trust the organization because of its decades-long track record of looking out for young people.

Volunteers go through training before they’re matched with a Little. There’s support staff that both Bigs and Littles can turn to for advice or help, and regular communication with families.

Stevens says would-be volunteers are held back by thinking they need to be perfect role models. But that’s not what kids — or anyone, really — needs.

“What we ask is for you to be present,” he says. “That’s what kids want: presence, and persistence.”

That persistence pays dividends. When Palmer got married, decades after their initial meeting, Cathy did her hair and hosted her bridesmaids.

“There were just all of these ways that they’ve changed our family’s life,” she says of her extended community, “let alone mine.”

Alex Hazlett is a freelance journalist who covers modern family life, technology, and science.

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