Natural Peer Mentoring

baseball-game12The playoffs to determine the British Columbia Little League team and the eventual team to represent Canada in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania took place in Victoria, BC a few weeks ago. This kind of organized and structured sport was quite different from the typical games I played as a kid, and I was eager to watch these youngsters play in such high stakes games.

When I arrived at the ballpark, I was flooded with feelings and memories from long ago. I had played baseball from the beginning of elementary school through university graduation. At one time I planned on being a professional baseball player. My reverie reconnected me with the role that peers played during these early years. I remembered that from dawn to dusk my friends and I spent virtually all our free time playing a variety of sports, but mostly baseball. We organized our own teams; we were responsible for our own equipment and for transporting ourselves to the parks where we would be the visiting team. On a daily basis we “chose up sides.” Everyone knew who the best players were, but the role of “chooser” rotated on a regular basis so that eventually everyone had an opportunity to be the chooser and chosen. Nobody told us to do this, it seemed like the natural thing to do.

We also adjusted the rules to maintain equity and compensate for our own growing physical abilities. For example, I remember the 20-foot high cyclone fence 210 feet from home plate in right field. When we were little kids, if you could hit it over that fence, it was a home run, and nobody minded the time it took to get the ball and bring it back. As a matter of fact, sometimes we would all search for the ball and maybe stop off at the store for candy or baseball cards. As we got older and stronger, we changed the rule so that hitting the ball over the fence was an out. Everybody wanted to keep the rhythm of the game going, and not spend time chasing the ball down the street. Nobody told us to do this, it seemed like the natural thing to do.

I remember the thrill of victory, our cheering each other, and deciding where or what we would do to celebrate. I remember the despair of defeat and the temporary nature of our gloom, the silent walks or public bus ride home, or the desire to blame somebody else for the loss. Yet the next day, everyone emerged ready to practice, chose up sides, and figure out what we learned from our previous game. Nobody told us to do this, it seemed like the natural thing to do.

I lived in a dense urban area: a mixture of black, white, Latino and Asian families. A lot of kids went to private or parochial schools, I walked 15 blocks to my public elementary school. From time to time new kids would move into the neighbourhood. They would drift down to the park, maybe even carrying a bat or a baseball glove. Somebody would always ask them if they wanted to join in the game or wait for the next choose-up. Nobody told us to do this, it seemed like the natural thing to do.

Although the park had adult directors (physical education students from a local university), and they would sometimes coach us and help us arrange to play other teams, we were pretty much left unsupervised by adults. We often played pranks and practical jokes on each other, destroyed or defaced property, or got into fights, and now and then said some mean or hurtful things to one another. But apologies, shaking hands, repairing damage and resolving disputes were equally as common. Nobody told us to do this, it seemed like the natural thing to do.

Kids today are growing up in the most highly organized society imaginable. Opportunities for youth to impact their environment or determine things for themselves are shrinking. Safe play areas are important, but these areas are not designed to be changed by kids; instead, they are designed to resist change. Adult organized activities tend to limit opportunities for kids to learn how to make their own assessments of equity, mutuality, and the true purpose of rules.

Times have changed. When I was a kid, there were only two things my parents were concerned about: things that would “poke my eye out,” and things I might do to “break my neck.” Opportunities for spontaneous play and peer interaction, the kind where kids can develop their own guiding principles, are on the decline. Increasing concern for the necessary physical safety of kids limits the time kids have to be on their own, travel freely into other neighbourhoods or receive spontaneous mentoring from a variety of adults.

Kids have fewer occasions where they can develop care and concern skills and behaviours. Social programs organized by adults have emerged to provide these skills, yet the programs are typically “deficiency” oriented. Rather than trying to bring out the “dormant wisdom,” which helps young people reconnect with their inherent needs for fairness, belonging, friendship, and fun, social skill oriented programs assume that kids are uneducated or ignorant and in need of adult-driven instruction.

Peer group interaction, a naturally occurring and powerful phenomenon, has been organized by adults through the use of peer helpers. Paradoxically, some of these organized programs may reduce the natural support peers provide. I worry that the introduction of the counselling skill and theory approaches as a basis for peer helping may lead peer helpers to learn accepted techniques, rather than build on their inherent wisdom and desire to help others. I worry that the increased acceptance of peer helping by professional helpers will be accompanied by a more rigid peer training curriculum dictated by professional interests. I worry that the success of peer helping in its present form may decrease the involvement of future volunteer peer helpers in making a variety of peer program decisions.

I know that my worries have been reduced by the many exceptional peer program leaders I have met over the years and by my own observations of a multitude of exemplary peer programs. Yet as peer mentor programs expand to community organizations, the workplace, and other age groups, variations are bound to occur which lose the connection with the foundations of peer work. Nobody told us to do this, it’s just the natural thing to do.

And, if you were wondering, a Little League team from White Rock, British Columbia became Team Canada. They represented Canada in the International side of the Little League World Series. As of this writing, they have a good chance to play an American team in the World Series championship game.

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