Why My Seedling Foundation Mentee Hates Me

Every Thursday at noon I attempt to mentor a 5th grader at Sanchez Elementary School. There are a number of different mentorship programs in Austin, but the Seedling Foundation is different.

We mentor children whose parents are in prison.

The reason I can only say that I “attempt” to mentor is lately I spend more time simply trying to get my mentee to acknowledge my existence, let alone participate in any meaningful conversation. In the past five months he’s gotten more withdrawn, more disrespectful, more angry, more defiant, and more guarded.

I knew that I had been assigned a pretty tough kid when I volunteered. The Seedling Foundation Mentor Director called me to ask if, because of my background working with adolescents in the criminal and juvenile justice system, I could take on a pretty tough kid.

How tough?

He traded his last mentor to another kid at lunch for a yogurt and a banana. The mentor’s feelings were hurt, and my kid’s nonchalant response was, “if he’s going to get his feelings hurt over that, I don’t want him as a mentor.”

When things go well, he ignores me for the first 10 minutes of lunch, engages with me for 10 minutes, and then leaves without saying goodbye when our time is over. From everything I’ve learned and read about children who have been abandoned, he has a terrible time forming attachments. Why get close to somebody when they’re just going to leave?

From the little I know about his family, his dad has never been in the picture and his mom is in and out of prison and jail. She was recently released a few months ago (when his attitude went sour) and comes in and out of his life. Sometimes she tells the kids they’re all moving to Mexico. Other times she says that she’s moving to Africa and will be back in a year. When he’s in her care, he often comes to school unfed, tired, and once with a huge knot on his head when her ‘boyfriend’ was chasing him under the table at the laundromat. (Yes, I made the report to Child Protective Services).

Nell Berstein writes about the plight of the children of the incarcerated in her book, All Alone in The World. As a society, we have always believed that children shouldn’t suffer for the sins of their parents. If you come with me to lunch on Thursday, you’ll see very differently.

I was talking to Seedling’s psychologist (we have an outstanding mentorship support program – dare I say, one of the best in the nation) about why my kiddo has been increasingly rude, dismissive, and just a big ol’ stinker and her explanation was the most tragic I’ve ever heard:

“He wants to know if you’ll come back, week after week, even if he is his worst self. He doesn’t understand you. He doesn’t understand the concept of unconditional love, of consistency, and of commitment. Part of it is self-loathing: he blames himself for his mother’s absence; that if he was a better kid or smarter or more good looking then maybe she wouldn’t leave. He is trying to make meaning about why somebody would continue to want to spend time with him. He may be rude or curt, but notice that he never says, ‘I don’t want you to be my mentor.’ You clearly have a connection – but he doesn’t know how to express it.”

This kid didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t steal. He didn’t do drugs. He didn’t assault somebody.

His only crime was being born to a mother who did these things.

And he’s the one being punished.

(image via flickr)

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