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Wanted: Men to mentor troubled boys

We cannot underestimate the influence committed adults can have in the lives of vulnerable young men

A mentor in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program tosses a football to a 14-year-old boy in Iowa. Associated Press/Photo by Dolly Butz/Sioux City Journal

Wanted: Men to mentor troubled boys

When I saw that a school shooting had taken place last week in Uvalde, Texas, I knew who did it. Not by name but by description.

Several things correlate among school shooters. They are usually young men who are social outcasts and from broken families. They are teenagers entrenched in online violence and often isolated from larger, character-shaping communities. They’ve got few tentacles affixed to the outside world and odd obsessions with conspiracy theories or video game fantasy worlds. They are alone, unattached, disappearing into themselves.

As their brains and bodies expand, their seclusion deepens inward. Unless someone pricks that swelling bubble of internal focus, a darkness can materialize into devastating reality. When man becomes his own God, he finds no reason not to shoot his grandmother or a classroom full of fourth graders.

Young men like the Uvalde shooter are without community, leadership, or the safety of trusted adults. They lack churches, family connections, friendships, and mentors. What we know about children with strong social networks is that they thrive educationally, relationally, and financially. Sadly, I’ve yet to see a national campaign to adopt a teen for mentorship in the local community.

While left and right argue about gun policy, few are discussing tangible measures to help save our young men from drifting into such a tragic existence. Gun ownership hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years, but mass shootings have increased. We must ask the question: What has changed in culture and society to facilitate this swift uptick? It’s an assortment of things, including fatherlessness, the internet, and the breakdown of strong, in-person social ties.

At Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, where I’ve volunteered for four years, the organization is chronically underserved by male mentors. Its leaders constantly push awareness and ask for men to step up and become matches for thousands of vulnerable boys, but the problem persists. Generally speaking, women volunteer more than men across the board. This isn’t just a problem for Big Brothers Big Sisters. It’s a problem for us all.

While left and right argue about gun policy, few are discussing tangible measures to help save our young men from drifting into such a tragic existence.

There is no shortage of boys in this country living without fathers or ignored by the fathers they know. In such situations, children have little opportunity to engage with other trusted adults or in community-based events. For these kids, there may be little money for sports or transportation to attend events at church or elsewhere. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, more than 18.4 million children are living without a father or stepfather in the home.

At a base level, statistics show fatherless children are four times more likely to live in poverty and are more likely to commit crimes, go to prison, abuse drugs and alcohol, and suffer abuse. Plus, they are far more likely to become criminals than girls in this scenario.

In addition to fatherlessness, as Robert Putnam famously demonstrated in Bowling Alone, published more than two decades ago, we’ve also abandoned one another. Much of the data regarding institutional breakdown, personal trust, and community engagement still stands. It is encapsulated by the loss of social capital and networks of relationships among people in a society, which leads to a widening socioeconomic gap and fewer opportunities for vulnerable children to connect with adults who can help guide them.

Only a small percentage of families choose to foster children in the United States, which is a need we often hear about. But an even greater yet easier need to fulfill is that of strong mentors for young men. Whether formally through an organization like BBBS or informally through one’s own initiative, the guidance of an older man can effectively change the trajectory of a young man’s life.

As one former troubled teen put it, “Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.” Children with mentors have higher self-esteem, bigger goals, and better educational outcomes. They have someone who might redirect an errant thought moving in the wrong direction. A mentor might send a text at the right time. He might show up at the front door the morning a bad choice is forthcoming. His voice might ring in the background of a tumultuous moment. His presence might reinforce the weakening safety net just enough to make a child feel safe.

When children have a community of caring adults around them, those adults can take the arrows of the world for them. Children can be confident in their safety and the grounding of solid adults looking out for them.

We can pass more laws and provide more government safety nets, but there is nothing more powerful than a man physically reaching out to take the shoulder of a boy who needs an anchor. Money and restrictions have nothing on an authentic relationship and a sacrificial investment in the life of a boy desperately craving the father he deserved and was created to have.

Ericka Andersen

Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer and mother of two living in Indianapolis. She is the author of Leaving Cloud 9 and Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church & the Church Needs Women. Ericka hosts the Worth Your Time podcast. She has been published in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Christianity Today, USA Today, and more.

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