How much is too much?

How much personal information should a mentor share with a mentee? Are there topics that are off limits? How much is too much?

Young people sometimes surprise their mentor with very personal questions. How should you respond? Every mentoring program has different expectations and every relationship is unique. To make a decision about how much you should share, Michigan State University Extension offers some things to consider.

1) What does the program advise? Some programs require mentors to refrain from promoting specific religious or political values while other programs are created to support the exploration of these very topics. When tough subjects come up, ask yourself if there are program rules you need to follow. If you don’t know, find out.

2) What would the parent say? As a role model, mentors can influence young people. Parents may prefer that mentors stay away from certain topics, particularly if the mentors values or experiences conflict with what the parent is trying to impress upon their child. If your mentee is getting curious about topics like sex or experimenting with risky behavior, you might benefit from talking to their parent to discuss how you should approach these topics. While honesty is always a good policy, there are some topics and questions that might be best to avoid.

3) When a young person asks a question you would prefer not answer, consider reframing it. For instance, if your mentee asks how old you were when you first had sex, you might ask why they want to know. Keep the focus on the mentee rather than you. You do not have to give a false answer, but it is also ok to not answer.

4) Some stories are better left unshared. While spending time with young people, adults are often reminded of some of their standout experiences from their own youth. Glorifying stories about school pranks or youthful indiscretions can give your mentee ideas.

5) Money is an area where there might be a big difference between you and your mentee. If your mentee comes from a family where money may be scarce, it might cause him or her to think you don’t understand the struggles of poverty if you talk about the extravagant vacation you’re planning.

Mentoring is focused on the relationship between two people and it’s easy for people to feel judged about how they or their families choose to spend money. It’s best to try to avoid conversation topics that could lead to financial comparisons.

When in doubt, remember that you do not have to answer a question right away. Ask your mentee for permission to think about their question and talk about it at your next visit. Follow up with your case manager or the parent to help you plan your response. If you would like to learn more, Education Northwest offers a free online communication training for mentors.

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