A role model is defined as a person whose behavior, example, or success can be emulated, especially by young people (1). A role model isn’t confined to how much money a person makes, how many material things one can buy, and what profession one plies their trade in. A role model is simply someone who does things in a positive way, someone who people can look at, with universal respect, as someone who takes pride in what they do.
Nike made this clear in a 30-second commercial back in the early-90s when Charles Barkley announced to the world six words that reverberated loud and clear:
In 1993, as a ten-year-old kid two months shy of turning eleven years old, it made sense. Charles Barkley played basketball, played basketball as well as anyone in the NBA and was a great example for anyone who played the game. However, as a kid, it was never a thing to say “I want to be like Charles Barkley.” Even at ten years old, it was obvious that Sir Charles played the game and that was it (2). He was paid, in his words, to wreak havoc on the basketball court.
There was no desire for Charles Barkley to become my parent; I had two. There was no need for him to become my uncle; there were plenty of those from ten miles down the road to 3-4 hours away. There was no yearning for him to be one of the teachers at the local elementary school; there were plenty of teachers who were doing a wonderful job for kids at Newton Rayzor Elementary. In the mind of this adolescent kid, all Sir Charles had to do was hoop. Sure, he was a basketball hero, but the dreams stayed on the basketball court. When it came time to get help with math homework, I knew to turn to Mrs. Jones, my math teacher, not Charles Barkley regardless of him being one of the league leaders in various statistical categories. While basketball, baseball and football stats assisted in my ability to learn math, there was never a time when a professional athlete in any sport took the place of the math teachers I had over the years.
Role models growing up were teachers, parents, people who were in close proximity each day. It is similar to White (1994) writing about a segment of the 13,000 students at Grand Valley State University. Approximately 2,000 students at the university were prospective teachers, majoring in education, and the lessons gained from being in an environment that fostered their future plans assisted in the mindset it took to become a teacher. Those were the people whose behaviors, examples and successes were to be mimicked. While there is no desire to be a teacher on a daily basis at this moment in time, the way teachers carried themselves left an impression from the time the Nike commercial came on the screen 20 years ago to present-day.
Being a role model seems simple enough, yet it remains unique. There’s no template to fill out, no profile to build on LinkedIn, nor is there mandatory training on the essence of being one. Things simply fall in place for a person to become one. Role models come in all shapes and sizes, races and backgrounds, genders and professions. That’s partly why it’s mind-boggling to read and listen to some of the stuff that comes from adults when they choose to criticize public figures.
When a letter was written to Cam Newton (3) from the parent of a 9-year-old scolding him for his post-touchdown celebrations and how it shirks his responsibility as a role model, it came off more as someone moving the goalpost to suit an argument. While sports heroes can be viewed as superheroes and even as role models, they are still human. In this particular instance it is up to parents to reinforce role models in a proper context to kids, not for parents to charge up an athlete because his behavior was interpreted as toxic for a child who was attending an NFL game for the first time.
There was concern about The Hunger Games series (Sloan, Sawyer, Warner & Jones, 2014) and how the making of the movies from the books could have an effect on adolescent development since adolescents are impressionable to what they view as well as adolescents viewing figures in film as role models. While the concern is understandable, proper context should be provided by parents and guardians of adolescents to reassure them that movies are entertainment and should be viewed in the proper context. If the charge comes that anyone associated with The Hunger Games should take their responsibility as a role model seriously, then sure, have conversations about the author, Suzanne Collins, writing a book which has more than 23 million copies in print and has sold over 87 million copies worldwide (Sloan et. al, 2014)
Collins has done plenty to contribute to a more literary society. The role model conversation can easily become one of embracing writing as a craft, and honing the craft to a Masters of Fine Arts in Dramatic Writing at NYU (4), expanding one’s imagination and working until your words manifest themselves in ink onto paper and paper into print as was the case with The Hunger Games series. Then again, it is much easier to play the blame game than it is expand one’s mind and see the positive in someone’s approach to making the world a better place while using writing as the means to do so.
When someone does something with pride, dignity and self-respect, they can be viewed as a role model. The obvious choices for role models are doctors, teachers, policemen; professions that have been around since damn near the beginning of time are universally propped up as role models. With that, someone has to keep the doctor’s offices, schools, and police stations clean, and it’s not like the people in the respective professions named do it themselves. They come in for work, do the work, and leave.
Folks who clean buildings can be viewed as role models, taking pride in making sure everything is nice, neat and clean for those doctors, for those teachers, and for those policemen to come to work and do their jobs well. They work behind the scenes and are just as valuable to things getting done as the people and professions that are widely lauded. Receptionists, waiters, hostesses, writers, just about any visible field has individuals who are role models.
A healthy level of positivity, attention to detail, people skills and patience are vital for people to do well in any of those professions. However, those professions are not ones that are normally associated with being role models. Everyone who has the ability to do something well and with respect to their chosen craft is a role model, and instead of wagging the finger at someone with a higher profile, use that energy to be a better you.