Thursday, February 5, 2009

Role Models

I've been thinking about this whole Michael Phelps thing. There are those who say, "eh, he's a young man who made a mistake, no big." And there are those who say, "He's a role model, he should know better, now what do I say to my kids?"

I'll say up front that I lean towards the first camp.

But I think the bigger discussion is about role models in general. Like it or not, people in the public eye are held up as role models. It is hard for me to tell how many of them "choose" that designation. We certainly put star athletes in that position, musicians, actors, politicians? Not so much anymore, but certainly Barack Obama is a role model. gives multiple definitions.
  1. a person whose behavior, example, or success is or can be emulated by others, esp. by younger people.
  2. A person who serves as a model in a particular behavioral or social role for another person to emulate.
  3. someone worthy of imitation; "every child needs a role model"
  4. A person who serves as an example of the values, attitudes, and behaviors associated with a role.

There are subtle differences here - there's a difference to me between "serving as a model" and "worthy of imitation."

Back to Michael Phelps. I think he still is a role model. I think he is a wonderful example of how dedication and hard work can achieve unbelievable goals. I also think we ask a lot of our role models - we expect all of their behavior to be exemplary all of the time. And in this day and age of instant communication, that includes their private behavior. How many of us can say that we are "worthy of imitation" ALL the time? And lest you say, but wait, I'm not a public figure, well, yes, you are. There are people who know you, and especially if you have children, they're watching you a good portion of the time. You may be more inspiring than you know.

A model is not the real thing. A model is a mock up or facsimile, used as an example. A model may, for example, be hollow inside (John Edwards comes to mind). But a model can still give us an example of something worthy of imitation. Something to strive for, with the awareness that real people are, well, real. They make mistakes, the role models (of all levels of fame) apologize, and they strive to learn from those mistakes. That's the behavior we should be imitating. That's the lesson we should be passing on to our kids. That's the real-life role model that all the 12-step programs use - one day at a time, don't beat yourself up, learn and grow. Our current president has admitted smoking pot. But somewhere along the line, he learned that it was not compatible with achieving his goals, he learned from his mistakes, and now look what he's done!

Rather than being disillusioned with Michael Phelps as a role model, use it as a teaching moment that real people make mistakes. Role models 'fess up, learn their lesson, and continue to be worthy of imitation. And having compassion for people, in all their imperfectness, well, that's a lesson a good role model teaches us, too.


Jill in MA said...

Well written, Ann!

hokgardner said...

Well said!

Anonymous said...

I live in Jersey and someone gave me a small list of NJ blogs when I started blogging again, so hello
:-). I've had a neighbor (in a very "normal" family town) who beat his wife with a vacuum. One who needed DYFS to come take the kids away. One who was selling drugs and had her kid in bed with her & her bf. We are a country pissed at someone for taking a hit off a bong? Well, aren't we holier than thou. I don't smoke pot, I think I am the only person I know who has never smoked pot, and I still don't find this even one whit interesting. He got such a bad deal. ~Mary

Momo Fali said...

I was so glad to see your comment on my Michael Phelps post, because you were the first person who stepped up and said you disagreed. I agree that you should use him as an example with your children...that they can learn something from this whole thing. But beyond that, my opinion is different.

Do I think it's a big deal that he was smoking pot? Not really. Do I think it's a big deal that he was dumb enough to do it in front of other people so that children who look up to him can see him using illegal drugs? Yes.

I agree that parents are the best role models for their children, and I would certainly hope that parents aren't using bongs in front of their kids (though, I know it happens), so why is it okay for my kids to see Michael Phelps doing it?

Ann in NJ said...

Momo, I agree that the issue is that he did a dumb thing. I think the bigger problem is that he chose "friends" that took a picture of him doing a dumb thing AND posted it on the internet.

Everyone does dumb things or misjudges friends. But we, as a society that publicizes these things immediately and broadly, still expect our celebrities to maintain the illusion of good behavior. ALL the time. And I think that's both unrealistic and unfair. But I appreciate your opinion!