SSP Mentor Onke Mazibuko is assisting our Mentors. This is his regular Blog: Onke’s Words of Wisdom and here he discusses boundaries.

Mentoring is not an easy thing. It takes skill, knowledge, patience and dedication. Like all worthwhile things, it also takes practice. The more you do it, the better you become at it. But like all meaningful relationships, formal and informal, you sometimes don’t know what you are doing, and this does not necessarily mean you are making a mess of the thing.


Sometimes instinct drives us in relationships, to the utter dismay of logic. At other times, it makes sense to use logic, especially in structured relationships with specified outcomes such as mentorship relationships.


Mentoring teenagers is certainly not easy, especially when you are an adult who has not been a teenager in decades. Unlike mentoring relationships formed in the workplace, tertiary institutions or professional sports, mentoring young people involves two people who live in completely different worlds. The young person often does not understand the world of the older person – simply because they have not started to think about the things that concern the older person. The adult may feel so far removed from the world of adolescents that trying to relate, formulate outcomes and match timetables just seems near impossible.


But impossible, it isn’t. Just like any mentoring relationship – it takes skill, knowledge, patience and dedication. Perhaps the patience and dedication need to come first as the skill and knowledge grows. Just as there are many different personality types in the world, there are many different approaches to mentoring. A mentor needs to find what style is most comfortable for them. Not all mentoring styles work for every mentee, just as not every personality gets along with every other one.


Even though there are many different personality types and many different mentoring styles, there are still common principles that greatly assist in building successful mentoring relationships. Genuine rapport goes without saying, as does mutual dedication to the success of the relationship.


Consistency in communication is important, as are specified objectives. These specified objectives are even more important, when mentoring young people as firstly, the young person may not know what their goals are and secondly, their priorities will likely change fast in the fast changing worlds of teenagers. The best an adult mentor can do for a teenage mentee is see the road ahead, understand each year in the young person’s life and prepare for conversations relevant to the young person’s life.


I am a strong advocate of focusing on building a genuine relationship with a mentee. I believe that even when a mentor does not know what to do technically, they can rely on the strength of the relationship to keep the development moving forward. The intricacies of the relationship will be determined by the contexts of both the mentor and mentee’s lives. Frequency of face-to-face contact and communication is important. There is no one way that works for all in this regard.


I know of a mentor/mentee relationship where the two only see each other once a month, others where they only see each other every second month and still others, like mine, where there is a weekly engagement. All of these can be successful – as long as both the mentor and mentee know the frequency of visits and have no dashed expectations. As long as there is some consistent communication, and the mentee knows when it is possible to contact the mentor, then there is a better scenario for positive development.


In the past few months, I have conducted interviews with a few SSP scholars in different grades, wanting to know about their mentoring relationships. I wanted to not only know what is happening in their mentoring relationships but I also wanted to know what challenges they face in their schools and what support they think they might need. One of the toughest things I learned was that many of them would rather not have a mentoring relationship at all than have one that falls apart without them knowing why. Unfortunately the reality is that many of these mentoring relationships do fall apart without the mentee knowing why.


It is quite reasonable to expect the SSP mentoring relationships to fall apart, for several reasons. Mentoring relationships – especially between adults and teenagers – are not easy. Any mentoring relationship that is expected to run longer than one year is a unique one that requires a lot of effort. Circumstances change in both the mentors and mentees’ lives and these have a direct effect on the mentoring relationship.


The important thing is that the mentor is honest when they can no longer fulfil their duties as a mentor and let the mentee and SSP know. The worst is when the child does not know why their mentor is no longer available. Teenagers, being the emotionally vulnerable beings that they are, do not take rejection well.


In the past two years that I have been an SSP mentor, I have constantly dealt with the issue of boundaries. Boundaries have always been at the forefront of my mind, because I happen to have a female mentee. I am constantly aware of where we meet, how we sit, how we speak and how our interaction may appear to anybody looking at us. We have been lucky in that our matching was near to perfect (she actually requested a male mentor).


Our personalities complement each other, we share common interests and interactions are natural between us. This has made it easier to spend more time together discussing a range of topics. It has been encouraging to see how our mentorship relationship has grown in the almost two years that we have known each other.


An incident happened recently where somebody that does not know about our mentoring relationship, made assumptions about why we were meeting. They saw our interaction as inappropriate. All they saw were a man in his thirties and a girl in her teens sitting in a car. The world exploded.


All manner of societal stereotypes came into play and I found I was powerless to stop other people’s perceptions. What was most challenging for me is – that I know I have been careful but I have now come to see that you can never be too careful. Now I am questioning the boundaries between myself and my mentee again. I am wondering where I should draw the line, in terms of getting close to my mentee. I am questioning my role in my mentee’s life.


It is very hard to mentor a teenager and not find yourself blurring the lines between mentor, parent, sibling and friend. The mentor is not there to replace any relationship in the child’s life but it is also true that once you click with your mentee, the relationship can become really special to both of you and to that end you will protect it as best you can. I know of mentees that call their mentors, Mother or Big Sister or Big Brother. When there is a genuine connection – it is hard not to relate in a way that seems familiar to you both. The important thing is to always be aware of the nature of the relationship.


Male mentors, perhaps have it the worse in this regard (I could be biased in saying this). If you are a male mentor mentoring a young girl, society watches and fears the worst. It could also be the same if you are mentoring a young boy, even though it is not quite as bad. An adult woman mentoring a young boy does not look as bad and with a girl it is considered normal.


It has been a tough week having my integrity called into question and assumptions made about a relationship I have developed and come to take great pride in. I learned the important lesson that no matter what happens in our own little world, we still need to be aware of greater society around us. Perceptions are a thing. When dealing with young people, one has to constantly be aware of the perceptions all around. After all, part of our role as mentors is to teach our mentees about perceptions.


  • You may not get it right all the time.
  • Skill. Knowledge. Patience. Dedication.
  • You are learning.
  • You are making a difference.

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