As an expert on violent behavior, when there is a national story like the school shooting in Florida, my phone rings with the predictable question of “What went wrong?” But instead of writing about what might have gone wrong in this most recent attack, I would rather focus on what can go right.
As I thought about the many influences in my own life that helped me navigate the troubles of life, images of my mentors streamed through my head. My sixth-grade teacher, my high school youth pastor, an influential college professor, and one of my closest friends as an adult. These are but a few of the people that molded me through my 56 years and directly contributed to making me a better human being.
While these were very different people, influencing me at very different points in my development and in very different ways, they have several things in common. Their commonalities have nothing to do with their gender, jobs, or specific roles in my life. Instead, other than being in the right place at the right time, they shared five characteristics that make good mentors.
First and foremost, each of these people expected a lot from me. They were not complacent with my mediocre behavior and it was assumed I would live up to the standards they set. Their goals were not beyond my reach, but they were clearly beyond anything I would have set for myself.
For example, my sixth-grade teacher told me he never wanted to see the same mistake twice on a test. It wasn’t an order — simply a statement of expectancy that I lived up to.
These mentors of mine caught me doing something right. Parenting and leadership for decades focused more on telling children what they were doing wrong. Consequently, my memories of childhood were reflective of this trend, but these mentors were quick instead to notice what I was doing right. They helped me to believe in myself, which is something I’ve adopted with children I work with.
“I knew you could do that” and “I’m so proud of you for remembering…” are phrases I use liberally.
My mentors were never too busy to help me. They never condescended or made me feel like I was in the way. Instead, they often made me feel like I was doing them a favor by letting them invest in me. A dear friend of mine and former acting director of the FBI was a very busy man, but he always made me feel like he had nothing to do but talk to me. That is an impression I work hard to emulate.
My mentors modeled the behavior they expected of me. They were all men of the highest character and even though I know they had flaws, they were never personally satisfied with a life of status quo.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, none of them knew they were mentoring me. It wasn’t their job and I am confident that if I named them here and they were to read my words, they would be surprised. They mentored me because it was part of their character — not because they had to.
I respect each one of these men to this day even though I haven’t seen some of them in decades, and I purposefully try to be like them in the way I treat those around me.
I am neither naive nor am I suggesting that the solution to mass shootings is as simple as being nice to people. We live in a complicated world with very complicated problems. But we are social creatures and when this basic need is unmet, dysfunctions occur. Families, coaches, teachers, and many others in the community at large can contribute to meeting this need.
Imagine a world in which all of us, with great deliberation, focused on leading the impressionable people that come into our environments — our classrooms, offices, and athletic fields.
The old saying goes that we should always be careful about what we do or say because we never know who is watching. People are not only watching and learning from us, but they are also learning about themselves. At least for me, I want to do everything I can to make that an encouraging message.
[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D., is a college professor, published author, licensed counselor, certified professional counselor supervisor, newspaper columnist and public speaker. He holds an M.A. in Counseling and a Ph.D. in Psychology from Georgia State University and has taught at the college level for over 30 years. His website is gregmoffatt.com.]