During the late 1990s, when the Spice Girls were near the height of their fame, they visited Toronto and spent some time at the MuchMusic studios. Teenage fans filled the street in front of the studio as they tried to catch a glimpse of the group. The Spice Girls then went outside to greet their fans. One teenager had the opportunity to say something to the group, and as the reporter held up a microphone, she managed to blurt out that she thought they were wonderful role models, before being overcome with emotion and losing her composure. As I was watching this on television, I was shaking my head in disbelief while muttering something to myself about the decline of Western civilization. Clearly, this young lady and I had vastly different interpretations of the term “role model”.
I didn’t think about that news report again until recently, when I read a very macabre Rolling Stone article about a Florida teen who murdered his parents. One of his friends, while searching for an explanation for this behaviour, tried to pin the blame on the town itself – there was nothing for teenagers to do, and therefore, they always got into trouble. He said to the reporter “It drives kids nuts. There’s no role models. And the parents are always on everyone’s ass because everyone’s stressed about money.”
Try to ignore his weak argument and the reassignment of blame for a moment, and focus on what he said about role models. Up until that moment, I hadn’t thought that teenagers may actually want role models in their lives. I don’t expect adolescents to come out and say it, but if teenagers are looking for good behavioural examples in their community – then this statement is significant. This boy may be expressing what many other teenagers want, but haven’t said out loud. If this is true, then we as adults have a responsibility to be good role models, and from what I’ve seen, we’re not doing a particularly good job.
If young people are having trouble finding role models, where do they turn? My guess is that celebrities are now filling this vacancy, whether or not they are qualified to do so. To be fair, celebrities (as far as I can tell) are not requesting this label – it is being foisted upon them by their fans, as illustrated in the Spice Girls example. I’m not the only one with this opinion; other people have also said that celebrities should not be role models.
This confusion, as I see it, is twofold. First of all, fame is not the same thing as accomplishment. Secondly, young people looking for role models can’t make the distinction between fame and infamy. These are opposite sides of the publicity coin. Reporters measure attention-seeking behaviour only as an absolute value, and ignore the +/- sign. Celebrities no longer have to set a positive example to stay in the spotlight – they just have to behave poorly, which is obviously much easier. Since many young celebrities behave poorly, and don’t come close to fitting the definition of a role model, there is a gap that needs to be filled, and we – the middle-aged and older adults of our community – are the ones who should fill it. It is time for us to step in and become honest-to-goodness role models to the young people around us.
Last summer during a neighbourhood walk, I approached a railway crossing that had its lights flashing, bells ringing, and guard rail down. I was standing there with five other people: two boys who looked to be about nine or ten, and three middle-aged women. The train was only a couple of hundred feet away, stopped at the adjacent station. This intersection’s proximity to the station meant that the guard rail is usually down while the passengers disembark. After 90 seconds or so, the three middle-aged women decided that they were tired of waiting and crossed the tracks together. About 15 seconds afterwards, the two boys decided to do the same. I was disappointed to see the boys cross the tracks, but not surprised. I didn’t day anything at the time, but looking back I wonder if I should have given these women a stern lecture on the fiduciary responsibilities of being a responsible adult. There were three tracks at this crossing, and while a ground-level observer would assume that the signals were triggered by the train stopped at the station, there could have been another train travelling at high speed (and obscured by the stopped train) on one of the other tracks.
This is an example of the power that we adults have over younger people. We’re all told repeatedly not to cross railroad tracks when the guard rails are down, and the boys didn’t – until they saw the adults do it, and then decided to emulate them. The parental advice given to those boys seemed to be effective, but was then completely negated by the actions of a complete stranger. Our actions speak louder than words, which is why we must always be aware of the effect that our behaviour has on others.
We should behave well at all times, especially in public. Whether you realize it or not, you are being watched every time you step outside. If you cross the railroad tracks while the lights are flashing, or whether you run a red light or cross the street against the traffic lights, you may think that this act affects only you, but it doesn’t. Other people are watching you, and some may be taking cues from your behaviour. For this reason alone, we should always strive to behave admirably. We may not notice anyone reacting to what we do, but it doesn’t mean that our actions are going unnoticed.
The importance of being a role model actually increases over time. Every day in your community, babies are born and some elderly people will die. This means that with each passing day, a slightly greater percentage of the population is younger than you. Therefore, a greater percentage of that population will now look up to you as someone who is knowledgeable and wise. In time, you may even be thought of as your community’s proverbial “tribal elder”.
How To Be A Role Model
Some of you will find that being a role model is effortless (since you may already be one), but for others. it will involve a major shift in your philosophy of life and in your behaviour. Being an adult means taking on the fiduciary and continual duty of being a good behavioural example to others. Not everyone has the awareness, self-discipline, motivation or desire to do this. However, if you feel up to the task, then read on…
- Remember that you are always being watched. Others – family members, relatives and even complete strangers – are using you as a behavioural example.
- The younger a person is, the more s/he will mimic you. Be on your best behaviour around young children.
- Remember that actions speak louder than words. Lead by example, rather than by giving advice.
- If you’re driving with kids in the back seat, remain composed and don’t curse at other drivers or give them the finger.
- Don’t take the path of least resistance. When faced with a challenge, remember the words of John F Kennedy “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”.
- Set your own (impeccable) standards, always do your best, and strive for excellence in everything that you do.
- Challenge yourself regularly, and keep raising your standards.
- If those around you have lower standards, that’s fine – just don’t drop yours.
- Be kind, supportive and helpful.
- Be humble. Don’t brag about your own accomplishments – use your experience to assist others.
- Be respectful toward others.
- Be a team player. Remember the words of Mr. Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.
- Don’t be easily discouraged.
- Take responsibility for your actions, and “own” your mistakes.
- Keep all of your promises. Walk the walk.
- If you have the time, do some volunteer work in your community.
- Treat young people the way that you wanted to be treated in high school.
- If you notice something praiseworthy in another person, then mention it.
- Take good care of yourself physically, and don’t put poison in your body.
Finally, behave in a way that will make other people say “What would [your name] do?”.