Whether it’s Superman, the Little Mermaid, or real life parents, educators and celebrities, every child grows up with role models. As parents, we are in control of being the best role models for our kids, but managing the expectations of our children in terms of outside heroic figures is tricky.

When it comes to celebrities, seldom does a month pass without news of a public figure’s fall from grace. What if your child idolized college football coach Joe Paterno, or humanitarian writer Greg Mortenson? When role models turn out not to be our child’s idolized image, it can have an extreme psychological and emotional impact. What can parents and teachers do to monitor the relationship between kids and their role models and help them deal with disappointment?

Be Involved

Shanghai parent Diana Shen says we can start by being proactive, helping children find “positive, realistic role models.” Be present in your child’s search so you can help guide them. A good role model, she says, “is someone who reflects the values we want our children to have.” For example, introducing your kids to role models like Mother Teresa and Gandhi can teach your kids values of generosity, integrity and kindness, while eliminating the risk of disillusionment.

Research projects at school about influential figures can help kids discover potential role models and learn about those they already look up to. Teachers should mandate a range of source material so students learn to embrace opposing cultural perspectives and develop a more global worldview. Trips to museums and landmarks can also be starting points for more in-depth discovery.

Idol vs. Role Model

It is important to distinguish between an idol and a role model, especially for kids who have latched on to well-known celebrities. Xiehe school counselor Ted Corbould notes, “One problem with modern pop culture is that the media paints unrealistic images of celebrities and politicians as perfect people.” He suggests encouraging youngsters to “choose someone they know as a role model, someone they can talk to and can really understand.”

If our child is intent on turning a celebrity into a role model, it should be someone who truly exemplifies the values we wish our child to have, and not an idolized figure. For Amy Quigley, a learning support specialist at Western International School of Shanghai, it is important to help children pinpoint the positive traits in their celebrity role models, versus idolized talents such as singing and acting abilities.

Quigley’s son has two unique role models: skateboarder Tony Hawk and extreme sport prodigy, Shawn White. They demonstrate characteristics he hopes to exemplify, not just on a board, but in life. They are creative thinkers, risk-takers and hard workers. Quigley knows and understands why her son looks up to these men. Like Corbould recommends, “We should take time to know who our children’s heroes are so we can protect them and support them.”

Picking Up the Pieces

Whether it’s a celebrity or an acquaintance, there is always the possibility that your child’s role model will take a wrong turn. Figures like Paterno and Mortenson had positive media profiles for years and most parents would have been very comfortable with their children looking up to them. Helping children cope with scenarios where someone they admire did something wrong is crucial to maintaining a healthy emotional state and keeping your child from developing trust issues.

Honest conversations about current events, perceptions, and consequences therefore should be frequent in the family and the classroom. Sheridan Potter, a veteran of several international schools in China and an early childhood specialist, suggests “letting the child bring the issue up.” If and when they do, she believes we should be prepared to address their questions as openly as possible. “Explaining that adults can also make mistakes can help children empathize,” she says. Another strategy Potter favors is creating a learning experience from the situation by explaining that there are two sides to every story and letting children find their own answers.

Quigley recommends this approach: “Let children grieve or feel what they need to feel when they have been let down by a role model.” At these times, “allowing them to experience their sadness or emotion in the company of a parent or supportive care taker can be a good thing,” she advises. This is even more salient when a child has been disappointed by a friend or a peer whom they idolized. Quigley helps students cope through role plays, creative arts and other active forms of release. In this manner, she states, “A child can take ownership of a feeling, then move on to forgiving and learning from it.”

Whatever route you choose to develop your child’s role models, you mustn’t lose sight of the fact that we live in a turbulent and unpredictable world where any one of today’s heroes could become tomorrow’s zero. Therefore, as Rosen concludes, “Avoid making people into perfect heroes.” When notable public figures make mistakes he advocates helping young people understand that these missteps “don’t necessarily take away from the good things this person may have already accomplished.” This will help your child have a healthier, more emotionally balanced perspective on human nature.


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