Helping Your Child Choose Role Models
Want your little ones to take turns, play peacefully, speak kindly, and gobble up fruits and veggies? Then start by taking up these habits yourself. Parents are a child's first role model, says family therapist Jay Fitter, author of "Respect Your Children: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting." Children begin observing parents' behaviors and attitudes almost from birth, even when you're not aware you're being watched. So if you gossip about neighbors, spend hours glued to your smartphone, or snack on junk food, don't be surprised if your little mimic follows suit. "Parents and other role models help teach toddlers and preschoolers about socially acceptable behavior," says Fitter. Modeling healthy conflict resolution can help preschoolers avoid hitting and bullying behavior, he says. Small family disagreements (you want sushi, he wants pizza) are fodder for positive modeling. After a small argument, allow your child to see you resolve the conflict in a positive, respectful way.
Elementary-aged children look up to people who've overcome obstacles and experienced failure, defeat or hardship with a positive mindset, says Aiello. "Those types of role models will teach them that it's OK to try and fail, and get up and try again," she says. So Olympic athletes, musicians, authors and other celebrities can be appropriate role models, but beware — it's easy for an impressionable school-ager to get caught up in "celeb worship" instead of seeing his or her role model as an imperfect person, or to fixate on the glamorous aspects of a role model's image. Keep the dialogue focused on values; ask kids which values they look for in a role model and why. And remind kids that it's OK to choose more than one role model and to change role models as they grow up and expand their interests.
Positive adult role models are vital to high-schoolers. In a recent study from Ohio Connections Academy, 79 percent of 10th- and 11th-graders rated role models as "extremely important." What role should a role model take? Most students want a verbal cheerleader; in the same study, three-quarters of students said they wanted a role model to say encouraging words. "When real-world (as opposed to celebrity) role models who have the potential to become real-life mentors in a teen's life, it's a win/win," says Aiello. She recommends talking to teens about the role models they choose. Why do they look up to them? What do they admire most about them and why?
When teens hone in on qualities they admire in role models, dig deeper to encourage big-picture thinking, says Aiello. "Ask how they could use those qualities in their own lives and how those qualities might help them accomplish their goals in life. It opens up great conversations!"
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.