Role models are a part of life. When we lack experience or skill or hope, and can’t see a way to get from where we are to where we’d like to be, we naturally look to other people to see if someone else has done something comparable before us. Similarly, if we see someone doing something, or being someone that we admire, we look to understand what brought them to that ability and what sustains them in it. This manner of seeking to grow is critical both to individuals and to our civilization. Without it, we would be stuck forever within the confines of our singular experience.
There can be a complication, and even a downside, though to our identification of a “Role Model.” This becomes particularly worrisome when one of our children identifies a role model, looks up to them, strives to be like them, then watches them falter. There are sports stars caught cheating or betraying a trust, beloved older cousins “getting into trouble,” a brilliant and charismatic professor seducing a student, and on and on. There is in fact, no end to the ways in which we can disappoint one another.
Interestingly enough on a different side of the same coin, if we look, there are ways in which people we might not see as extraordinary can surprise us with their talent, patience, vision, commitment, or some other aspect of their being. They might not meet our definition of a “role model” but isn’t that really what they could be in that aspect.
Navigating through life and getting the most out of “role models” without either failing to see them, crashing and burning with them, or dismissing them as completely unworthy requires us to see human behavior as complex, multiply determined and sometimes contradictory.
The reality is that no human being is purely good or bad, and the more we can process our and our children’s contradictory perceptions and begin to articulate what about a person is admirable and what is disappointing the closer we come to learning self acceptance, the appreciation of differences, and compassion for human error, both our own and others. We might even see a strategy we can use to avoid mistakes ourselves.