When Role Models Fail Us: Where Does It Leave the Children?

When Police Officers, Celebrities, and the Government Fail to be Role Models

Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman

We all make mistakes. It’s human. But we don’t always clean up our messes. As adults—parents, educators, and mentors—we play an important role in teaching children how to cope with mistakes. It’s not always pretty—it’s not always easy—but it’s the responsible thing to do.

But what happens when our role models fail us?

Police Officers: For example, we teach our children that police officers are role models. They look out for us and keep us safe. We may know they aren’t infallible—but we often gloss over that part when we explain their roles to children. They are therefore held in high regard as the people who can do know wrong since they seemingly make what’s wrong right in the world. But after the lack of justice served for Ashley McIntosh (my niece’s 33 year old assistant teacher who was killed last February), parents and educators are still in an uproar. The courts ruled that the police officer, Amanda Perry, didn’t need to take any responsibility for crashing into a young Fairfax County citizen when traveling through a red light without her siren on during a slick, icy night. How can we teach children and teens to take responsibility for themselves and our role models refuse to take responsibility for their mistakes?

Note: Virginia Residents: Help make Ashley’s law a reality by signing this free petition. The law would mandate that emergency vehicle operators always use their lights and siren when driving through red lights, and mandate emergency vehicle operators slow their vehicles so they are able to make a controlled stop when driving through any intersection.

Celebrities: Our children look to celebrities for inspiration and are often crushed when things don’t go as expected. The world seemed to stop cold when Miley Cyrus posed for Vanity Fair in April. She was the real life Disney princess—the everydaughter—the everyfriend—and both parents and young girls felt blindsided by her decision to pose for Annie Leibovitz with only a sheet covering her. She didn’t take responsibility. Nobody did. How can we teach our children and teens the importance of taking responsibility when those in limelight refuse to do so?

Government: Children and teens look to local and national government officials and something to aspire to in their later years. Every child wants to be in charge, don’t they? Many dream of becoming president! But during a year of scandal and shame, in which government has been often equated with adultery, failure, partisanship, and disappointment we must wonder what our children are thinking. Who wants to aspire to be THAT ? When golden parachutes open for those who steal, lie, and cheat, can we really teach our children that it’s best to admit mistakes, take responsibility, and clean up their messes?

What is your role in teaching children to take responsibility?

Redefine role models: Teach your children that people don’t become role models because they hold a particular position—that’s just their job. An oval office or a red carpet doesn’t make a role model. From police officers to celebrities to the little old lady down the street, people become role models because of their character and what they do. And of course- don’t forget to look in the mirror to see their most important role model…you.

Show them that role models are all around us: It’s true. Role models can be found everywhere and anywhere. They may be the responsible babysitter next door who always calls if she’s running a few minutes late or the stay at home mother who volunteers at the local animal shelter twice a week. They can be the teacher who stays an hour after school to help a struggling student or the business man who spends his Saturdays being a “Big Brother” to a child in need. They are every color, every size, every age, and every shape. Find these role models and expose your child to them.

Teach them that role models are not infallible but fix their mistakes: Even those with the best character are not immune to mistakes. That’s not the point. It’s what role models do with those mistakes once they make them. A true role model, whether they’re high ranking officials or a coaches at a Powerful Words Member School program always makes full attempts to mop up their messes and leave things better than they were before they were made.

Be the role model they deserve: Children need to know that for a great role model, they don’t have to look farther than their own home or schools. Parents and teachers must hold themselves to the highest standards. No matter what’s on TV or in the movies, you are the superheroes in their worlds. So try not to make huge mistakes—but if you do—work on fixing them…fast.  Post this up in your minds– if I knew my actions were setting the precedent for the next generation of leaders, would I be doing this? If not, stop. If you already did, see tip #3.

Teach them to be the role model they desire: Children need to know that what they choose to do is important if they want to be leaders. Ask them, how would a great leader handle this problem? What choice should the leader in you make? When they see themselves as leaders and are certain that you expect and know that they can be a powerful role model, they will rise to the occasion 9 out of 10 times.

Tell them to keep their heads high and their eyes on their own plate: This advice came straight from my father while I was growing up. Children and teens need to be confident in their own decisions. They can’t worry about what everyone is doing, thinking, or saying. When we focus on our own goals, other people’s choices don’t throw us.

Talk about mistakes and ask them for their opinions: When role models make mistakes, allow your children and teens to talk about it in their own words. Ask questions. Allow them to vent. Children need to know that they can come to you and talk openly about their frustration, confusion, and concerns. When you simply make yourself “available” to talk and listen, you are teaching them to become critical thinkers and helping them to realize that they can disagree with their role models or even change their minds about them. Talking it out will help them to digest what they’ve heard, expand their minds, and make decisions.

Of course, role models will continue to make blunders. We will continue to make mistakes. But we can’t throw up our hands and say “there’s nothing I can do.” That statement is simply untrue and irresponsible. We have to do better by our children if we want them to do better—be better—think better—as they grow, develop, and lead.

Please comment below– any ideas on how to deal with the failure of role models? We want to hear what you have to say!

Happy Columbus Day-

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3 Responses

  1. […] When Role Models Fail Us: Where Does It Leave the Children? […]

  2. […] When Role Models Fail Us: Where Does It Leave the Children? […]

  3. […] is, that we can’t rely on Miley to fit the role model status we want her to fit. When we do that, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.  She’s just a celebrity—an entertainer–not necessarily a role model. You want role […]

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