Role Models: The Good, Bad and Ugly – Are They Relevant?

I recently overheard someone on TV speak about a “role model” and mention a name I hadn’t heard before.  That phrase stuck in my head and I began to wonder who I would consider to be a role model in my life.  As a child, it was my mom but as I grew older the choices were not as obvious.  Where did that phrase originate and why is it important to have role models in our society?

I was not surprised to discover the term was devised by a sociologist about 50 years ago.  Generally speaking, a role model is someone children or young adults aspire to emulate because they possess something worthy of admiration or praise.  The best role models exhibit positive behaviors.  I agree with choices such as Oprah Winfrey, Princess Diana, Sally Ride, Amelia Earhart, Mother Teresa and Helen Keller or Neil Armstrong, Ron Howard, Dalai Lama, Tim Tebow, Martin Luther King or Derek Jeter.  These people worked hard, followed their passion and led/lead productive lives.  More important, they contributed to the welfare of others along the way.

We are all too aware of the escapades of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Tiger Woods, Roger Clemens or Chris Brown, to name a few.  These individuals were once put on pedestals either because of their acting, music, athletic ability or celebrity status.  Unfortunately, these personalities fell short of expectations.  Why then, is it still important for us to encourage the idea of role models?

The reason is this: children are easily led.  From the time they are old enough to understand, parents, teachers and other authority figures warn them of the dangers that lurk in society.  Without this guidance, children are left to choose for themselves what the right thing to do is.  Since their brains are still developing, they don’t always make the right choices.  Improper decisions can be dangerous.

Role models should possess the ability to inspire, promote tolerance, civic commitment, confidence, selflessness and persistence.  A parent’s role is to nurture the child, while letting them make guarded mistakes along the way.  Mistakes are a way of learning what not to do in the future and they are necessary for mature development as well as mental and emotional growth.  Learning the difference between a mistake and a poor choice is the key and not making the same mistake twice is the goal.

Everyone makes mistakes and that includes role models.  Some of our finest leaders have made mistakes that may have been poor decisions at the time but weren’t repeated nor did they cause irreparable harm to others.  They learned their lessons.  Some people never learn and are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again.  It’s just a matter of time.  We are however, a forgiving society, so much so that in a remarkably short period of time, major errors in judgment are forgiven and/or ignored.  I could name a dozen offenders who are often cited as role models right off the bat.  What does that say about us and how are we expected to teach our children a better way if bad behaviors are not punished but casually disregarded?

With fewer prominent choices for role models today, it is important to teach children not to put someone on a pedestal; just try and model the positive characteristics and behavior that person possesses.  Don’t become someone’s follower; learn to become a leader.  I believe it’s important for parents and caregivers to teach children the difference between a “celebrity” and a “role model.”  For the most part, the first is short-lived while the latter is enduring.  We need more leaders in our world today. 

The most important role models in a child’s life should be their parents or caregivers.  As Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D. claims “role models can be educators, civic leaders, clergy, peers, and ordinary people encountered in everyday life.  Anyone can inspire a child to achieve their potential in life.”  It may be time to steer our children away from the celebrity track toward a train that holds passengers who make a real and lasting difference in the lives of others.

“Leaders are more powerful role models when they learn than when they teach.”  Rosabeth Moss Kantor