Mirriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines a role model as “a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others.”
The key word in this definition in imitate. Imitate. Who do you imitate? Who is your role model? Really think about it. Depending on your age and what’s going on in your life, your answer is probably very different from others. If you’re five, you might say “your parents.” If you’re seven, you might say “your classmates.” If you’re fifteen, you might say “Shaun White.” If you’re twenty, you might say “your professor.” If you’re thirty, you might say “your spouse.”
Throughout our lives, we have many different role models who we imitate, and when we grow to a certain age, we can choose these role models. When I think of whom I imitate, I’m reminded of a lecture that really stuck with me in college about Social Learning Theory. “The theory considers that people learn from one another, including such concepts as observational learning, imitation, and modeling. The basic principles of Social Learning Theory are as follows:
1. People can learn by observing the behavior of others and the outcomes of those behaviors.
2. Learning can occur without a change in behavior. Behaviorists say that learning has to be represented by a permanent change in behavior, in contrast social learning theorists say that because people can learn through observation alone, their learning may not necessarily be shown in their performance. Learning may or may not result in a behavior change.
3. Cognition plays a role in learning. Over the last 30 years social learning theory has become increasingly cognitive in its interpretation of human learning. Awareness and expectations of future reinforcements or punishments can have a major effect on the behaviors that people exhibit.
4. Social learning theory can be considered a bridge or a transition between behaviorist learning theories and cognitive learning theories” (http://teachnet.edb.utexas.edu/~lynda_abbott/Social.html).
According to this theory, a person’s social environment has a huge impact on the general behavior of the individual, both positive and negative. When I search my mind for positive environments for children, I can’t think of any better environment than sleep-away summer camps. At camp, the community structure gives children a chance to observe the behavior of many peers and role models and the resultant “reinforcements or punishments” of those behaviors. And you may think well they can get that at school. Same thing, right? Wrong. School settings model only a learning environment, where as summer camps, especially overnight camps, model everyday life, from meals to personal hygiene practices and beyond. Moreover, summer camps offer the best role models for children; role models that you can really know; role models that are personal and intelligent. These role models are the counselors, who typically have a few years of college experience and who are screened for their character and ability to work with children. I don’t think that a parent could ask for anything more from a role model for their child to imitate.
And just a side note followed by a rhetorical question: I recently searched the phrase “modern role models” on Google. The first ten individual names that popped up were Shaun White (snow/skate boarder), Soulja Boy (hip hop artist), Miley Cyrus (teen pop artist), Matt Damon (actor), Michael Jordan (legendary basketball player), Chris Angel (magician), Noel Gallahgar (musician), Tyra Banks (model and talk show host), Angelina Jolie (actress), and Britney Spears (musician). Although all of these people are involved in different careers, they have one common characteristic: they have exposure through mass media – television, radio, Internet, magazines, and newspapers. They are celebrities. They have had great success with their individual careers. But how well do we really know them? We see them in their “roles” – on the slopes, on stage, on the screen – and we can imitate them only in the role that we see them. Shaun White is a role model for a young snow boarder. Soulja Boy is a role model for a young hip-hop artist.
But are these people you want acting as role models for your children, siblings, students? Miley Cyrus was just ranked one of the worst role models for teens. Just because someone is called a role model, does not mean they are setting a great example. You have the opportunity to give your children strong role models through their social environments.
Who is your model for the role of parent, brother, sister, student, employee, leader?