Parent as Mentor-The Lifelong Relationship

by Donnel Nunes


In the article’s first section, I present a case example that illustrates the parent-as-mentor relationship and discuss findings from contemporary literature on the subject of successful parenting. In the second section, I propose an integrated operational definition of parent-as-mentor. This definition includes key mentoring and social learning theory constructs intended to assist in differentiating between parents who are acting as mentors from those who are simply fulfilling traditional parenting roles. In the third section, I then suggest considerations that may serve as a starting point for the parent who is interested in exploring a mentoring relationship with his/her adult child. In the fourth section, I present thoughts for future research.

Section One: Case Example

Throughout the winter season in Hawaii, giant storms in the northern Pacific generate waves that can rise to staggering heights along the north shore of Oahu. On any one of these days, Hawaiian surfing icon Clyde Aikau can be found waiting on his surfboard outside of Waimea Bay to ride those giants alongside the select few who possess the talent and commitment necessary for the task at hand. In addition to his great feats on the water, Clyde is also a committed father and mentor to his adult son Ha’a.

During a conversation I had with Clyde, I began to understand that he viewed these precious moments on the water with his son as opportunities to teach him about the mindset required to rise to the highest levels in a sport his family has famously pursued for generations. He sees Ha’a as the Aikau heir to their family’s legacy and the one who will carry it forward, but only if he can master every aspect of it.

Clyde’s guidance runs the gamut, from such surfing-specific areas as physical conditioning, technique, etiquette, networking, and marketing himself to sponsors, to broader instruction and counseling on lifestyle choices and personal commitment. These include tips as elemental as how Ha’a can financially support himself as he pursues his pro circuit dream.

As an expert and highly regarded surfer in his own right, Clyde is more than qualified to provide Ha’a with this advice. Only later, reflecting on this conversation, does it occur to me how similar his interaction with his son was to my understanding of mentoring. Of course, there were obvious ways in which these interactions overlapped with those of a proud and caring father. Yet, there were also undeniable similarities to a more formal mentor/mentee relationship.

With this story as my starting point, I began to explore the ways in which parents can – intentionally or unintentionally – act as mentors to their children, how we can differentiate between “parenting” and “parent-as-mentor,” and why it is important to be able to do so.

Effective parents are involved in a broad array of interactions with their children. Pleck (2010) identifies three primary categories and two supporting domains of positive paternal involvement. Primary categories include “(a) positive engagement; (b) warmth and responsiveness; and (c) control” with “control” being specific to “monitoring and decision-making” related to the lives of their children. Supporting domains refer to “(d) indirect care” which includes activities that are supportive, but do not require the direct interaction of the parent, and “(e) process responsibility” (p. 67) which refers to the parent ensuring that their child’s primary needs are being met even when they are not the ones providing them. (Note: Though Pleck (2010) was generally focused on paternal involvement in child development, he is clear that his work is intended to align with the greater body of parenting research.)

Much like a successful relationship between a non-parent mentor and the mentee, an effective parent provides support and security through a reciprocal relationship with his or her child (Lamb, 2010). Indirect and direct effects of this type of relationship can be linked in positive ways to a child’s cognitive development, ability to self-regulate, social competency, emotional stability, and self-concept (Lamb, 2010; Bowman, Pratt, Rennekamp, & Sektnan, 2010).

The relational dynamics between Clyde and Ha’a are hardly unique. Whether it is a situated learning scenario (Lave & Wenger, 1991) involving a family operated business or similar eastern traditions, including the sempai-kohai relationship (Bright, 2005), it does not take long to identify both current and historical examples of mothers and fathers supporting the professional development of their children. At the same time, we need to be clear that parental guidance and/or support for their children’s professional aspirations does not necessarily equate with a mentoring relationship. Looking to some of the key qualities that define successful parenting and mentoring relationships, we are presented with the opportunity not only to expand our understanding of parent and child relationships similar to that of Clyde and Ha’a, but there may also be mutual utility for expanding our understanding various facets of mentoring.

Section Two: Components of an Operational Definition for Parent as Mentor

While there is no universally accepted definition of mentoring, prevailing literature continues to reference a review by Jacobi (1991) when presenting operational definitions of mentoring. The frequency of this reference suggests that researchers have, at least tacitly, agreed on similar constructs. Yet, while these allow for broader interpretations of just what is mentoring, the results can also appear vague and limiting regarding what constitutes acceptable dyads and contexts. For instance, dyads cited tend to exclude family members, and contexts generally dwell on mentoring in business/management, academic, and youth situations. I propose the addition of a new category—“parent-as-mentor” —where parents are formally acknowledged as mentors.

In order to move forward in this inquiry, I propose that we heed the advice of Bearman, Blake-Beard, Hunt, and Crosby (2010) and establish both the “core components” and the “divergent elements” (p. 376) of the operational definition of parent-as-mentor. Jacobi (1991) presents a comprehensive review of mentoring definitions from education, business, and psychology that provide a strong reference for the development of an operational definition of parent-as-mentor.

The following is a proposed list of conditions intended to assist in distinguishing when the father is acting as a mentor as opposed to the more general role of parenting. Items are primarily drawn from shared elements of mentoring and social learning theory.

Core Components

  • The parent must be guiding the child in a domain or through a skill set where the parent’s level of expertise, status, and success would be sufficient to mentor a non-family member in the given field or area (Jacobi, 1991).
  • Parent and child are engaging in interactions with a focus on achievement on long-term and shared goals in personal development in professional or academic areas of life (Allen & Eby, 2003; Jacobi, 1991).
  • Parent is working to advance the development of their child in areas that affect their participation within professional or specialized communities (Bearman et al., 2010; Kram, 1985; Lave & Wenger, 1991).
  • Their actions help lead the child to becoming a full member of their chosen professional community (Johnson, 2002; Kram, 1985; Lave & Wenger, 1991).
  • Outcomes that determine success should be driven by the vision, goals, and values of the mentee/child (Clutterbuck, 2008; Clutterbuck, 2013).
  • The adult child is willing participant.
  • All interactions are developmentally appropriate.

Note: While mentoring relationships are reciprocal, particularly with parent-as-mentor relationships, the needs of the child/mentee must be paramount over the needs of the parent/mentor (Bearman et al., 2010). In addition, the driving motivations of the parent should be altruistic and in line with a need to support the advancement of future generations. In developmental psychology, this type of motivation is most often associated with generativity (Jacobi, 1991).

Taking these core components into consideration, the predominant themes are threefold:

  1. the parent needs to possess either a certain degree of expertise in the domain for which they are aiding their children or a certain skill set related to guiding relationships,
  2. there is a clear end goal of the child entering into a professional or specialized community of practice (Bronfenbrenner, 1986; Jacobi, 1991; Johnson, 2002; Kram, 1985; Lave & Wenger, 1991), and
  3. any interactions between parent and child need to be developmentally appropriate.

Conditions 1 and 2 are consistent with foundational aspects of numerous mentoring definitions, including the seminal work of Kram (1985). Kram (1985) suggested that a key feature of mentoring is helping a less experienced individual to be successful in their professional pursuits. In addition, the operational definition presented by Johnson (2002) highlights very similar priorities: “a good mentor discerns a protégé’s personal and vocational dream, endorses this as realistic, and offers an environment conducive to facilitating this dream” (p. 89).

Condition 3 focuses on broader considerations from parenting and adult learning theories related to the importance of developmental readiness in learning (Baumgartner, Ming-Yeh, Birden, & Flowers, 2003). While these may not be the only things to consider in differentiating between the parent-as-mentor and the parent, I propose that a focus on utility may be a strong starting point for any on-going dialogue about the category of parent-as-mentor.

Finally, with regard to an operational definition, I propose that we consider the possibility that a focus on parent-as-mentor is not divergent but is instead convergent and a return to one of its original intended purposes. The Greek origin of mentor has historical roots in the need of both the father and mother to find suitable surrogates in times when they could not directly tend to the needs of their children (Homer & Fitzgerald, 1998). Seminal writing on mentoring inadvertently may have acknowledged this historical perspective through the use of the word “paternalistic” when describing the nature of a mentoring relationship (Shapiro, Haseltine, & Rowe, 1978, p. 55 from Jacobi, 1991).

Section Three: A Proposed Starting Point for Parents  

For parents getting started as a mentor to their children, there is a wealth of literature on effective practices of mentoring that can be applied. In an effort to offer a starting point, I suggest that the parent review the definition presented in section two and ask the following questions as a guide.

(1) What is my area of expertise and/or what are my strengths and deficits related to facilitating guided relationships, and how does this apply to the needs of my adult child?

Based on the operational definition presented in section two, the parent-as-mentor must have a requisite level of expertise, status, skill, and/or accomplishment in the domain where he intends to mentor. However, this does not necessarily mean that a building contractor cannot mentor a son who is starting his own business or attempting to advance in a business career. The key is for the parent to be able to identify the specific skill set he holds and how it can apply to various contexts. For example, a building contractor may have to know how to manage his or her own business, deal with employees, market the services, and manage finances. Additionally, sometimes growth can come from a parent-as-mentor asking questions that may have not been considered by the less experienced child. This is an area of skill that can be developed by the parent.

(2) To what extent do I understand the practice of mentoring?

Finding material on the topic of mentoring is simple; finding material that is evidence based is another matter. A good starting point is to try to identify leaders in the field through academic article citations, conferences, contacting mentoring institutes or mentoring programs, and/or reaching out to personal mentors for advice on navigating the existing resources. Johnson (2002) pointed out that skilled mentors need to be able to focus on what is developmentally appropriate, teach through intentional modeling, and demonstrate personal commitment though ongoing self-development of the parent.

(3) Is my child interested in having me act in this role?

To ensure that the interests of the child are protected and emphasized, I suggest that any parent-as-mentor relationship start with formal agreement and an understanding of the child’s vision, goals, and values. In addition, both adult and child should agree upon a formal exit strategy. Clutterbuck (2013) proposed that success is determined by the ability of a person to live his or her life according to personal values. With this in mind, the work done in parent-as-mentor relationships should stem from the values of the adult child. Additionally, having an exit strategy will also help to minimize the effects of parent/child power differentials. Exit strategy models from business literature may prove to be a useful source for advice in this area.

(4) How do we define our roles?

Though interviews from an on-going pilot study, I have found several ways parents are choosing to address this common struggle. Some families have opted to use different names to distinguish their different roles. For example, a parent and child may choose to have their child call them “Dad” or “Mom” when they need the parent and “Doctor” or “Coach” when they need their mentor or professional advisor. Consideration should be given to how either party can safely speak out if the mentoring relationship is interfering with the parent/child relationship.


The primary argument of this paper is that the mutually exclusive separation of the domains of mentoring and parenting leave both disciplines at risk of the perils of operating as functional silos. Under the prevailing paradigm, the benefit of discoveries made in either field may fail to reach populations that would otherwise stand to gain by a more cohesive perspective. Greater benefit for both fields may lie in the creation of “parent-as-mentor” as its own class or category within the greater practice of mentoring. Such a category could provide the means for researchers to see the presence of confounding variables not as a threat but rather as an opportunity for significant interdisciplinary discoveries and innovation.

Some questions future researchers may want to consider: (1) what is the effect of teaching parent-as-mentor strategies on parent and child reported relational “quality” measures between children and parents; (2) what is the effect of teaching parent-as-mentor strategies on adult child task-specific self-efficacy; (3) what is the effect of teaching parent-as-mentor strategies on perceived family social capital; and (4) how do high quality parent-as-mentor relationships influence developmental factors for children and their parents over time? Future researchers may also want to consider how the developmental stage of the parent and child may dictate appropriate goals and interactions. There are also clear opportunities to explore the role parent-as-mentor relationships may have on outcomes for succession planning in family businesses.

In addition, social learning theory has much to offer both parenting and mentoring practitioners with such concepts as Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development, Bandura’s modeling and self-efficacy (Bandura, 1988; Bandura 1997), Lave and Wengers (1991) exploration of situated learning, and Bronfenbrenner’s (2006) bioecological systems theory.


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Donnel Nunes, MSCP, NCC, LMHC

The Author

Donnel Nunes is a licensed mental health counselor who focuses on developing innovative programs and strategies for helping his clients to reach their fullest potential. With over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents, adults, and families, he brings a wealth of practical and theoretical behavioral knowledge to each of his clients. He has presented at numerous conferences on topics related to behavioral health, education, and mentoring.

In addition to his work with families, he is an educational psychology doctoral student and adjunct faculty member at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. His doctoral research focuses on parents who act as mentors to their adult children. His goal is to find ways to empower families to use this dynamic relationship to build better relationships and futures for both parents and their children.

Once a full time waterman, Donnel has taken his own experience in the big winds and giant surf of Oahu’s famous North Shore into his practice, where he draws on a Zen-like focus to successfully negotiate the toughest of situations. He is regarded by many of his professional peers as a person who can transform outcomes through his intuitive and creative approaches to human behavior.

He can be reached at