Thursday, December 1, 1994

Role Models

Recently I got into a discussion of role models with my children's dentist. Our family was embarking on a cross-country trip that would include a visit to Washington, DC. He commented that it's too bad there weren't any good role models today like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson. He felt that Bill Clinton and George Bush just didn't cut it like the folks from days gone past.

This got me thinking about the whole concept of role models. What is a role model anyway? The dictionary defines it as "an individual who serves as a model in a particular behavioral role for another individual to emulate." So for a child, a role model is someone they want to be like when they grow up. They can follow this person's pre-made path, rather than forging their own new one. It's a safe and socially acceptable route to take, so long as you find a good role model.

The three good role models our dentist mentioned all have one major thing in common ...they're all dead. Being dead helps them make the "good" category for two reasons. First, they can't make any more mistakes. And secondly, society tends to be kinder to the dead than to the living. We usually remember the good things about a person who has died, and forgive or overlook any past transgressions.

People who are still alive have a lot more trouble reaching and staying in the good category. One problem is that they can still make mistakes, which can instantly turn them into a bad role model. Another problem is that, as a society, we tend to notice and remember the flaws of a living person, rather than their good points (and the media doesn't help us at all to overcome this tendency).

So, even if you manage to attain the title of a good role model, like many entertainment and sports stars do, it doesn't take much to turn you permanently into a bad one. Pete Rose is one that always comes to mind when I try to figure all this out. He was an amazing baseball player with several record breaking accomplishments. He did a lot of charitable work with kids, and was well respected and admired. Then news of his gambling problem surfaced. It was like all his past achievements were now tarnished, and there were even doubts as to whether or not he would still be admitted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

We learn that a good role model cannot have any bad traits. But since this is not possible - no one is perfect and no one is all good - then we must admit that a good role model is an illusion. Movie company executives have known this for years. There is no end to the stories and biographies that tell of painstaking efforts taken to present an actor or actress to the public as someone who is all good and pure. The actor was watched very closely, and any transgression he/she may have committed was immediately covered up and washed over. 

Musicians can sometimes receive the same treatment. The Beach Boys are a classic example. They were portrayed as clean-cut, all-American teenage boys. Any problems they had were kept secret from their many young fans. Then Dennis Wilson died after falling off his docked boat into the water, and drowned because he was too drunk to swim to safety. News of his history of alcoholism and womanizing hit the press, and the clean-cut, all-American image was shattered.

The message we are ultimately giving to our children is that to be classified as good, you have to either be perfect, which isn't possible, or be very good at hiding your bad side.

It would be much more helpful to show our children how to be proud of their accomplishments and learn from their mistakes. Mistakes can be equally as valuable as successes when looked at in the proper light. You can choose to keep your errors in judgment private, but you don't need to hide them, and you certainly shouldn't have to feel ashamed of them.

Rather than teaching our kids how to judge and classify people, we can show them how to appreciate the positive aspects of a person and learn from the negative. Instead of throwing out Pete Rose's entire lifetime achievements, we can acknowledge and respect his athletic talent and his charitable work, and still discuss with our children the problems compulsive gambling can create.

Take a look at the people close to you. Perhaps Aunt Mary does a lot of volunteer and charity work, but frequently yells at her children because she's so busy she has no patience or energy left. Maybe a neighbor boy is an excellent student and very polite, but was recently caught shoplifting. Neither Aunt Mary nor the neighbor boy should be classified as bad because of their mistake. They are still good people, but may need some help working through a problem area.

Our world is not black and white. We are a variety of colors and shades. It is unfair to categorize people into good or bad. We are all varied combinations of the two. We can make a bad choice, and then fix it and continue in a good direction. Rather than finding a role model for our children to imitate, let them look at the wonderful variety of personalities and talents, and allow them to pick and choose the best of each. By letting them know that mistakes are a natural part of life, they can treat them as healthy learning experiences, rather than skeletons in a closet.

This article was originally published December 1994 in Parent Guide, a SLO County newspaper.