Papers & Essays

Role Models

We asked four-year-old Adam who he wanted to be like when he grew up. He whispered to his grandmother, "It's a secret. I want to be Spiderman," and he added, "but my Dad says I have to go to university first."

When I was about nine, my mother suggested that I choose a role model. I'd heard how Abraham Lincoln, as a young lawyer, solved disputes peacefully, with humour. I'd model my character after him. In high school I read Marie Curie's biography. She was a partner, wife and mother and made a difference in the world through her work. My mission was to be a wife, mother and help bring understanding between cultures as a teacher. Combining aspects of those models led me to Japan and China where I endeavored to help my students express their ideas in English so they could be understood outside their countries. Today I want to emulate my grandmother and my bosses, Michi Kawai and Emma Plank. They were self-aware, knew their skills and accessed their limitations, shared, were respectful, patient, and lovingly took time to hear my opinions and encourage.

I asked 20 people if they had a role model, what characteristics they valued and how that person affected their lives. Some of the replies include: Austin, a five-year old. He has Spiderman shirts, pajamas, toys, so I expected he'd say 'Spiderman,' but he said, "I want to be like Kasanthe (a jr. kindergarten classmate) because he is smart and does his school work really good. He is also friendly." Daniela, age 15, said she wanted to be like two older girl friends from high school. "Because they know how to handle difficult situations." Nasteho Abdulle, age 18, wants to be like the Prophet Mohammed. "I read about the way he did everything in life. He was kind." She will study nursing at The University of Toronto. Tracy, a 49 year old widow, replied, "My mother because she always had time for us and was so loving." She described herself as a Hockey Mom, meaning she drives her three teen-age sons to sports. Ted, age 68, an Air Canada pilot, said that when he was 18 he read about Port Lock Wilson, a DC7 PamAm Pilot, he knew he wanted to be an aviator. Jim, my 50 plus dentist, said he wanted to be like his father, a Canadian Army officer. "He had a sense of humour and was kind to everyone." Simon, age 33, a casual worker, said he'd have to think about it. (Obviously the idea of a model was new; a day later he answered.) Steve Nash, an NBA basketball star. "Oh not because he is rich and famous but because he donates to charity. He's just a good guy." "Has he influenced you?" I asked, and after thinking he replied, "I might go back to school." He was never spontaneous and I had the feeling that he didn't really have a goal or a role model but was giving me answers that he thought would impress.

My small sampling turned out to match the range and frequency of findings from a 2005-06 Toronto School survey. They asked 31,960 elementary and high school students who was their role model, who they looked up to. It could be someone they read about, someone on TV, a living person or someone from the past, a fictional character, someone famous or not famous. The over-all statistics for boys and girls are: 28.74% listed a relative, 15.32% a friend, 15.10 % a sports person, 9.31% a musician or singer, 6.66 % an actor, 2.65% a teacher, 1.8 % a religious figure, 1.54 % a nurse or doctor, 1.48 % a coach or club leader, 1.26% a business person, 0.71% a community leader, 0.64% a politician, 14.79 % other. These results opened my eyes. Why don't our teachers, coaches and community leaders make a better impression? It pointed out that people close by are more likely to be role models than people we learn about. Often values were more important than careers.

Adolescents may choose a model because of their appearance. Mary Phipher PhD, in her Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, wrote that teenage girls worship thinness. One in five female university students in the U.S. has a serious eating disorder. "These girls are people pleasers and need to be taught to value themselves as persons." Merryl Bear and Kaca Henley wrote in "Healthy Attitudes and Healthy Images" that teenage boys feel their self images don't measure up; 47% use steroids. Recently men are expected to be more nurturing, but few boys have good role models. Teens see things in black and white. They can't think in the abstract so they need models and they need to understand the changes taking place in their bodies to feel normal and safe.

There are programs to help teens find models. The August "Role Models on the Webb" featured Tiger Woods, a Golf pro who has a multi-racial background. Every month the site describes a person's background, education, values and success. As a child Tiger says he learned patience and perseverance from his Buddhist Mother and caring from his father who sat beside him at bedtime to hear about his day. The National Aboriginal Role Model Community Visit program provides native North American speakers who are successful. The Toronto School Board has a course outline, "Role models and heroes," which is used by teachers of history, sociology and reading comprehension to help students choose values. Sean Cover wrote a book, Habits of Highly Effective Teens, which is a source to help children become self-aware, identify values and form a mission statement about what they want to become.

The American adage that you can be the top of any career you want, isn't so. You might never become Prime Minister, School Principal or a Golf pro. Health, size, sex, economics, opportunity--many things beyond your control mean you may never achieve the career pinnacle of your dreams. Believing that we could have reached the top if we'd tried harder, makes many of us feel that we failed. Educator Maren Mouritsen says, "Most of us will never do great things. But we can do small things in a great way." Bruce Murray, a high school science teacher tells his students, "It isn't how wise you are but how you use the wisdom you have." Albert Einstein wrote, "Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of values."

Some role models are chosen because of their career and some because of their character. Both models influence how we perform our life's mission. Ask: Is it beneficial to have career and character role models? Who are my role models? Am I a good model? How can we help children form good self-images, value systems and goals?

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