Role models are important, not just for children, but for people of all ages. It seems that being able to see some of our own areas of potential lived out by others helps us visualize better what we want to become. Role models give us something to aspire to and to seek to emulate, a target at which we can aim: “I could be like that!”
Many young children will look to their parents as their first role models, perhaps adding an early teacher before turning their attention to their favourite footballer, dancer, singer… At this stage, having a role model is often akin to hero worship, seeing only the good and wanting to imitate them in every respect.
Teenagers have their role models too, but at this stage of their lives, young people are becoming more discerning, learning to differentiate between the aspects of their role model they would like to emulate and those they would not. They will be learning to see that their heroes (including their parents and teachers) have flaws as well as desirable qualities, selecting which aspects to avoid and which to continue to seek to emulate. So, it is not unusual that their role models also become their anti-role models in other respects.
Over the years, I have found teenagers reluctant to accept the idea that others might see them as role models. Younger brothers and sisters often see teenagers as role models, and younger students sometimes see those a few grades above them within a school community as role models too. All too often, this goes unnoticed, which is a shame since being respected by others can be a source of personal affirmation for those whose actions or character has been noticed.
Tips for Parents
Either positively or negatively, being a role model is an aspect of being the parent of a teenager from which there is no escape! They know you better than you think, not just your actions and behaviours, but your motivations too. Teenagers are at the stage of learning to be critical and parents sometimes find teenage critical analysis relentless and the honesty ruthless!
Be honest with your teenager about your own strengths and weaknesses. One of the things that I have heard teenagers denounce most often and most vehemently is hypocrisy, wherever it occurs, but especially if it comes from their parents. Admitting that alongside the things you do well, there are also things you do badly or with which you struggle, and encouraging them to emulate the former rather than the latter, could be an important step in raising the level of honesty in the relationship with your teenager.
You cannot choose your teenager’s role models for them. For many parents, there will be a considerable measure of relief on discovering that their teenager’s role models are people for whom they also hold some admiration. For others, however, there might be fear of the possible outcomes of their teenager seeking to emulate role models of which they disapprove. Fighting your teenager’s choice of role models will often be a fruitless enterprise. However, especially if you have been able to talk honestly with them about yourself, as suggested above, it might be possible to extend the approach to the evaluation of others. Acknowledging that there are some aspects of their role model that you recognise as admirable, whilst there are others about which you have considerable reservations, is more likely to gain a hearing from your teenager than a wholesale dismissal of the person they hold in esteem.
Talk with your teenager about your own role models. Whether it is someone who currently inspires you, or someone you once held in esteem, talking with your teenager about how they are/were helpful to you as a role model could be a helpful step to take. Helping them see how you wanted to emulate an aspect of someone, whose flaws you also recognised at the time, could be a step towards helping them to learn more about the effective use of a role model.
Tips for Teachers
Be a role model. Teachers are in a unique position to be role models for their teenage students of a whole range of aspects. From behaviour in a professional environment, to refusing to discriminate on the grounds of gender or race, to the patience shown towards students who are struggling with a subject in which the teacher is considered an expert – students will see and learn from the example set by a quality teacher in their classroom.
Give feedback. Teachers sometimes become aware of younger students holding older students in esteem for something they have achieved or the way they have behaved. Feeding that back to the older student, quietly and in a way that protects the identity of the younger students, can have an enormous affirmative effect.
Don’t allow banter that demeans an individual for being a role model. One of the ways teenagers sometimes protect themselves is to talk down any recognition of the achievements of others in the class. By refusing to allow such banter in the classroom, the teacher can support those who are already becoming good role models for others, and also be a role model in the way they refuse to allow the loudest voice to dominate their classroom.