In most normal families, there’s usually a relative, the “cool” aunt or uncle, who takes a place of prominence in a child’s life, teaching them useful skills, offering advice and guidance, and most importantly, being the person they can complain to about their parents. When our oldest daughter, Ashley, was in her preteen years, all of her uncles lived far away, and some of them were not really ‘mentor’ material anyway.
But we had stayed friends with Frances, our daughter’s Pre-K teacher, and we recognized that over the years, Frances had been mentoring her as if she were “the cool aunt.” We needed to recognize and acknowledge it. That was when I coined the term “Designated Grown-Up.”
Like the Designated Hitter in baseball, or the Designated Driver in drinking, to a parent the Designated Grown-Up is the person we count on to take care of things when we can’t. To a child, the Designated Grown-Up is an adult friend who doesn’t talk down or patronize. For both, the job is a bit like a godparent, but more involved and less traditional. Where the godparent is usually seen as the “backup plan” in case something happens to the parents, the Designated Grown-Up is somewhere between an older sibling and a third parent (but much cooler), somebody who can help where the parent can’t. Most children end up with one, often a teacher, coach, or a friend’s parent, but sometimes that can go badly, if the adult is irresponsible, predatory or lacking good judgment, especially if the parents aren’t really aware the relationship has developed. Sometimes, like Luke Skywalker, a young person will go out and find their Obi-Wan, but it’s best if the candidate is somebody the parents are friends with and know well, so that the Designated Grown-Up is working in partnership with them.
I approached Ashley and said “Frances is your Designated Grown-Up. She is the person we trust to give you wise counsel; when you have a problem, when you’re in trouble and don’t want to talk to us, when you’re mad and want to complain about us, talk to Frances. She’s on your side.” Then I told Frances the same thing. 15 years later, they’re still close.
Later, we did the same with our son Chris and then our younger daughter Kate. They each had a carefully-chosen Designated Grown-up.
Sometimes, circumstances dictate that a child will end up with more than one Designated Grown-Up. It’s okay to add another to take up the slack. Chris ended up with a troop of them; after Koby moved out of the area, John, Ron, and Soren stepped in, with his best friend’s mom, Judy, serving as Occasional Mom as needed. Have as many Designated Grown-Ups as you need!
Today, our children are all grown up, aged 29, 25 and 20. I chatted with them on Facebook about the concept of the Designated Grown-Up and how it had impacted them.
KATE: I think it’s a cool and an important thing. I’m a Designated Grown Up in a way up for a bunch of kids at Parks who come to the center, and we’ve seen kids who make great strides and become really great, just because some adults are giving them positive reinforcement and being interested. We have one kid who was a hellion less than a year ago. Now he works here. We have some really great kids who come from really really s****y home lives; if they weren’t here they’d probably be in gangs. One kid lives with her brother who is in a gang, her mom is in prison and dad is just gone. She’s one of the sweetest kids. I think the Designated Grown up thing varies though. Thomas [a family friend] has like 10 designated grown ups, other kids really only need one that they can count on.
ASHLEY: I think a Designated Grownup is obviously important for kids with family lives like Kate describes, but they also can have a great impact on kids with close, loving families. Just having someone who isn’t related to you but is still genuinely interested in you and loves and supports you is really valuable. I kinda wish I knew a kid I could be a designated grownup for and pay it forward.
I also spoke to their respective Grown-Ups, asking each the same question: “Remember when [kid] was young and we told him/her that you were his/her Designated Grownup? I thought I’d ask you about your thoughts on the subject.”
FRANCES: It’s funny that you bring this up; I’ve been thinking about this very thing for the past few years, really. There’s research somewhere that suggests that student success in school can be attributed to, almost distilled down to literally one outside force beyond the family. In the circumstance where a child is a foster youth, or has complacent or even absent parent(s), the presence of one caring individual, that you name as Designated Adult, can make the difference between academic success and failure in the K-12 years (though I believe the research pinpoints middle and high school).
KOBY (Chris’ Designated Grown-Up): I was completely honored by that designation and was actually reflecting on it the other day as I sat in my first Youth Group parent meeting, as a parent!!! Yes, Bella is that old and I absolutely love the idea there is someone in our church that I can trust to be there for her in ways I cannot. So much of life is about risking ourselves in relationships, the designated adult is a way reinforcing that.
MARY (Kate’s Designated Grown-Up): I think the concept is outstanding and can have a positive and lasting impact on both parties. I highly recommend it. I think it’s a cool, smart thing for a kid, particularly if it happens naturally. Wish I’d had one. I was lost in a sea of adult males.
FRANCES: What are my thoughts on this? I’m one of those teachers who”collects students.” Some of my former students call me their “academic mom,” some call me friend or confidante. These kids come back to me, as adults, and say I made a difference, that they still talk about me to each other, even as twenty-somethings. It’s gratifying to know that they value my teaching, that my presence, though brief, in the grand scheme of their life made an impact. I attribute much of this love of teaching to that first year I taught Ash as a, what three or four year old?
Those kids were my testing ground. When I got through that year, I knew that I couldn’t turn my back on this as a career, because I loved seeing that learning look, but I also knew that kids connect with me. Some teachers have great methodology but don’t exactly connect with the students, Doesn’t mean they can’t teach, it just means that that isn’t the person outside their family that will be their supporter or what I call, their cheerleader , in their academic and developmental years.
I just attended another college graduation of one of my kindergarten students. How cool is it to see it all come full circle? So cool.
It turned out our instincts were correct; as young parents, we knew that our kids would need somebody outside the family to be their friend, advisor, mentor, cheerleader and sounding board; if they were going to seek advice, better they should get it from a trustworthy adult than a child as ignorant as themselves or somebody we didn’t know. They needed an objective outsider who wasn’t required by law and tradition to love or even like them but did anyway, and we needed to make room for that. And as it happened, it was good not only for the children, but for the Grown-Ups as well, and for lifelong friendships all around.
A good illustration of the difference between a Designated Grown-Up and other mentor types is shown above: Harry’s mentors included Dumbledore, McGonagall, Sirius Black and Remus Lupin; he studied under a variety of teachers and stuck close to his friends, but when he needed somebody to have his back or a sympathetic ear, it was always Hagrid. Hagrid didn’t have any obligation to teach or guide Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but he was always there, always ready to help, and he got just as much out of the relationship.
There’s your free advice for the day. Look around your close circle of friends and family. If your child is particularly close to one of their aunts, uncles, cousins, your best friend from high school, or some other person you know well and trust completely, award them the title of Designated Grown-Up, explain what it means, and shake their hand. 15 or 20 years later, when they are appointing Designated Grown-Ups for their own children, don’t be surprised if you get a call.