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Dad or Darth Vader? Child Role Models

April, 2010
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Admiration and the desire to have the same qualities as exceptional people are common human traits. Heroes give us a target to shoot for and an appreciation of human potential. These icons become our role models and we often compare our performances to theirs.

Children choose role models that have characteristics that are valued by people the children hold in esteem. Toddlers love Elmo and Kermit until their friends and the T.V. hero’s introduce them to G.I. Joe and the Terminator. Pre-teens listen to their parents until their friends and the movies tell them parents are jerks. Young adults listen to the media and see that 9/11 firefighters have to fight for compensation for lung ailments while Wall Street bankers plead poverty at Senate hearings and then take taxpayer money and pay themselves big bonuses. Kids are not stupid. They see who our society rewards and their parents are always telling them to get their share. When kicking a ball into a net or breaking a guitar on stage in a drug induced rage earns limousines, endorsements and stardom while teachers, house builders and farmers struggle to keep their homes it is clear who our society has chosen to value and reward. The wealthy and the innocent propagate the myth that the poor are happy and will enter into the kingdom of heaven. But the wealthy clearly instruct and assist their offspring to have what it takes to get as big a share of the communal pie as they can. Parents must feel a bit hypocritical when they tell their child to work hard when they know what really counts is the right connections. Mother Teresa has been replaced by Britney Spears and Schweitzer, MacArthur and Gandhi by David Beckham, Michael Jackson. At least these last three are real humans. Many children are so caught up in the fantasy world of video and computer games that instead of Ulysses, they have adopted some digital freak as a mentor! Our children are wandering in a moral vacuum and adopt as role models those who seem successful in a vacuous society.

In China we can still see massive stone sculptures of workers with faces uplifted and infused with dedication and solidarity. But over the past 30 years since the “It is glorious to be rich” pronouncement China has finally caught up with the “enlightened” west and those who give an honest day’s work for their livelihood have been kicked off their pedestal and the “nouveau rich” have slithered up it. The dealers have become the deities and the workers are the suckers. What are we telling our children? Basically, if the crooks get away with it, it‘s O.K. These are the role models our kids see get praised and rewarded. Just look at the convicted Korean tax evader who was deemed to be too important for the economy to go to jail and has been reinstated as the head of one of the nation’s largest electronic manufacturers. Outrageous!

Confucius, Gandhi and Jesus said lead by example. What are our children to think when they don’t see their fathers (and sometimes mothers) all week. The clear message is that work is more important than spending time with your family. Mothers who franticly chauffer their children from tutor to tutor give the message that they as a mother and a person have nothing to teach or share with their own children. The message is we don’t want to be with you because we don’t know what to do with you. It says as parents we are incompetent to give anything but breakfast and a ride to your next surrogate adult supervisor.

Being a role model for a parent is not a choice. You can’t outsource parenting. Your child is going to follow in your footsteps whether you like it or not. If you say the other drivers are idiots your children will believe it. If you say your child is stupid your child will believe it. And what is worse is that they will try to prove you right! Your power as a parent is tremendous. What you say, what you imply and what you do is the model that your child accepts as the way a grown person should be and they will encode these behaviour patterns in their psyche. If a parent tries to solve problems through confrontation there is a strong possibility the child will do the same. If parents value honesty and practice tolerance this will be reflected in the behaviour of their children.

So if we want our children to have positive role models we have to start with ourselves. Do we maintain a life balance between work and home, show respect for others just because they are human beings and not because of the size of the car they drive or because of their job or the handbag they carry? We want our children to take responsibility for themselves and their environment. Do we hang up our own clothes, keep our homes and workspaces organized or do we leave it for the ayi to do? Do we respect ourselves, our partners and children, and neighbors or do we create an ‘us vs. them’ environment in which our ways are right and theirs are inferior? We want our children to eat right but do we care for our bodies? Or do we accept being up late for business socializing, eating foods we don’t want our children to eat. Do we drive when we could walk, let the hot water run while we shave, and buy and throw away too much too often? Do we set good examples for keeping our minds sharp and maintain an interest in a wide variety of subjects or have we become narrowly focused on our jobs and mind-numbing entertainment? Do we still know how to play, experience joy, wonder, imagine, create, laugh, think, and be an individual or have we let ourselves become part of a larger system servicing shareholders’ and government interests?

When I began research for this article on parents as role models I came across an article asking parents who they wanted their children to have as a role model; a very hip music star known for his brushes with drugs, violence and the law or Tiger Woods who at that moment in time was squeaky clean. The choice was easy then but in retrospect Tiger has shown his human foibles. But he has done the right thing about them. He has admitted to himself and the world that he messed up, regrets it, has apologized for it and is doing what is possible to get back on the right track. This is a great example for his children and for us. We all make mistakes and life is a continuous odyssey for self-improvement. We should pursue it and encourage our partners and children to navigate their voyage as well.

We can also encourage our children to emulate others. Get age appropriate biographies of famous people and high achievers for your preteens and older children. There are plenty of sports heroes who made it the hard way. We have had a century of women’s liberation movements that have produced renowned CEO’s, astronauts, politicians and artists. The recent win by a woman for the Best Movie Director Oscar is just the most recent proof that, although the going may be tougher than it should, especially for women and minorities, there are no limits imposed on our ability to reach our dreams.

Parents should encourage critical thinking in their children about what are the qualities that make a person worth emulating. Is it batting averages or building Houses for Humanity? Are today’s stars really contributing to a better world or just collecting millions to keep the populace entertained? Doesn’t the fact that ratings for the Academy Awards are far superior to the announcement of Nobel Prize winners tell us something about how lost we are in our moral and intellectual pursuits? The heroes are out there; it is just that nobody pays them any attention any more. We are too busy being entertained. Cultivate your child’s moral judgment by asking her questions about what is important in life. What should one’s obligation to others and the environment be? Is cheating O.K. if it helps you win? These are the questions role models, through their behaviour, have answered. Role models don’t have to be geniuses or accomplish great things. They just have to be good human beings who give more than they take. Everyone who works with children and indeed with other people in general, influence those around them. We can all be role models for each other by treating others as we would like to be treated and striving to bring the best out of ourselves and others, especially our children.

By Patrick Donahue

You can contact the author at: Sebalex.x@gmail.com

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