01/16/2007 08:11 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Be the Change

I was sitting at the dinner table and told my family I would be busy tonight writing a piece on National Mentoring Month. My daughter said, "Cool, did you know last month was National Watermelon Eating Month?" My husband joined in, "Why don't you write about mentoring a watermelon eater?" Which brings us full circle back to National Mentoring Month. Clearly my husband, a comedy writer, is mentoring my teenage daughter. As complicated as this might be for me every now and again, I know from my recent research about National Mentoring Month that a dad's mentoring of his daughter is a very good thing.

When I first heard about National Mentoring Month my reaction was similar to that of my family. Who knew that there was such a thing? Is this a Hallmark holiday designed to line the pockets of pretty much everyone except those in need of mentoring? But I spent some time on the Internet and learned that National Mentoring month is spearheaded by the mentoring project at the Harvard School of Public Health, the MENTOR /National Mentoring Partnership and the Corporation for National and Community Service. It is a real thing. The goal is "to recruit volunteer mentors to help young people achieve their full potential", particularly those in foster care where research has shown mentoring has significant and quantifiable benefits. It is a good message and I join in the call to encourage people to mentor a child, whenever and wherever possible.

Is there anything else to write about mentoring other than it is good and we should all do it? Yes. The interesting question to me is not whether we should mentor but how. I first thought of a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." Second, an adage my mom told me time and time again, "Practice what you Preach." Third, a traditional Buddhist (Bodhisattva) ethic: The greatest good you can do is free yourself from confusion and guide others toward that freedom. All these bits of advice have a common thread: Children learn more from how we act than from what we say. We can speak soothing or positive words but if our manner is agitated, from the perspective of the child, our agitation will trump our speech.

Those who have affected me deeply have embodied that which they hoped to convey and pointed me toward what is true. I try to follow their example and find this way of living astoundingly simple and virtually impossible. But I keep trying.

Years ago I was on a meditation retreat with Ken McLeod where he instructed us to "think of our greatest teachers and feel appreciation for them." I vividly remember that it was the faces of my own children and my students that came to mind. Without a doubt those who I have mentored have been my greatest teachers. If you haven't done so already, spend some time volunteering in your community and my guess is that you will experience this yourself.