What Real Role Models Are Made Of
“I don’t believe professional athletes should be role models. I believe parents should be role models…. It’s not like it was when I was growing up. My mom and my grandmother told me how it was going to be. If I didn’t like it, they said, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.” Parents have to take better control.” —Charles Barkley
I admit it: I thought former NBA player-turned-sports analyst Charles Barkley was a jerk when he said that infamous quote years and years ago. Like, ballers, rappers, movie stars, radio and TV personalities — practically anyone with any remote connection to entertainment — spends their (working) lifetime trying to make us love them, and then the years after their 15 minutes of fame trying to get us to stay in love with them, even though the hotter, younger, better version of them has come along and rendered them completely irrelevant. Did he really think a kid — perhaps one on a school basketball team — who watched him push a basketball up the court wouldn’t want to learn some of his on- and off-court moves? Or that a child who maybe dreamed of being a popular singer wouldn’t want to study how, say, Janet Jackson became such a meteoric sensation? Or that a star’s money and fancy clothes and flashy things wouldn’t have some kind of effect on impressionable little people?
I mean, really: Telling kids not to look up to superstars who became superstars by demanding the world look up to them seemed so ridiculous on so many levels, I got hot just hearing Barkley’s name.
But then I grew up.
And had me some babies.
And the culture of celebrity made a seismic shift, and all of a sudden, guys weren’t just dunking basketballs on the courts but brandishing guns in the locker room. Pretty singers weren’t just making beautiful music; they were stumbling across stages and giving slurred, drunken acceptance speeches at awards shows. Even the wholesome, quiet family guy was out apparently sticking and moving practically every chick that crossed his line of vision — and so doggone sloppy about it that now all his side pieces are tousling their hair, glossing up their lips and scampering toward the limelight in search of their own 15 minutes of fame.
Seriously, the cult of celebrity has become so incredibly grimy that I no longer get surprised by the tomfoolery. And I certainly don’t look for ways to clean it up when my kids notice the stories screaming from headlines or shouted out on the morning news. Like, yes, the little girl from your favorite kid show sent pictures of her naked body to her boyfriend; she was wrong for that and shouldn’t be surprised that all her goodies are now on display for the universe to see. She’s a dummy. Learn a lesson — don’t be like her. You want some OJ with your cereal?
It’s a hard sell, this tactic. It involves not only constant conversation about tricky subjects, but surrounding my babies with people I want them to look up to — who’ve done something enough to warrant the “hero” status, and who are around us enough for my kids to see it up close, over and over again. When they think of heroes, I want my kids to envision my friend Gretchen, an educator who’s fun and relatable and do-or-die helpful — the kind of friend I want my kids to be to their friends. I want them to remember that their Daddy and their papas — all of them — are proud, hardworking, loving men who wouldn’t dream of calling a woman out her name or disrespecting their families by relishing in ridiculously, childishly, destructively bad behavior — the qualities my girls should seek in mates of their own. I want them to think of my BFF/sister-in-law Angelou, who is energetic and committed and building her own business, a business dedicated to helping and healing others. That’s a helluva business model for kids — self-dependent, innovative, and dedicated to thinking about more than just themselves.
Now Gretchen, Angelou, Nick, and the two papas? They, in my estimation, are heroes — much like the Sunday School teachers and factory workers and hair dressers and bowling team members my mom and dad surrounded me with when I was little, each of them family friends, each of them larger than life. My personal heroes. They weren’t rich. They didn’t drive fancy cars. They didn’t lead glamorous, tabloid-fodder lives. But what they did do was note that we kids were watching them and following their lead and that they had a responsibility to set a good example for the ones coming up behind them.
In essence, they conducted themselves like grown ups.
So go ahead and cut up, “stars.” I’m through trying to get you all to understand why we love you and need you to get a little “act right” in ya. I’m busy raising my kids. And they’re being raised to not care about you, too.
So I stand corrected, Charles Barkley: After all these years later, turns out you were giving some sound, sage advice. Thank you.
I do not think I ever saw celebrities as role models, but then I grew up in Hollywood where celebrity and reality collided for me at a young age (e.g. laying flowers at Marvin Gaye's house after his dad shot him even though I knew he was an addict).
I think the seismic shift you saw may have to do with looking at the world through the eyes of motherhood as well as how pervasive we wedge ourselves into celebrity lives. If they mistep now it is all over twitter, you tube, and gossip sites instantly. There really are no more spin doctors that can keep a handle on their antics in this modern social media age.
I will say that we are all human. Mistakes and bad judgment happen. I don't believe celebrities should be role models. They usually are the first to say so when they make mistakes. And to believe they won't make them is not fair. Just because you are a celebrity does not mean you are perfect. We should get the guidance and lessons from our parents. But there are also times when the parents are not equipped to give it.
@Stacey: I totally feel you on your commentâ€”we ARE all human. But one would think that if you're in the public eye, and you're looking for people to admire you and want to BE you, you would be a bit more careful with how you conduct yourself. Basically, you KNOW you're being watched. So why not watch yourself? Put your best foot forward. Keep your nose clean? And the guns out of your locker room? And the video cameras out of your bedroom? And the champagne from your lips until AFTER you make your acceptance speech? These are simple things. No one is asking for perfectionâ€”just discretion.
I don't think we should let celebrities off the hook so easy. What is wrong with them striving to be good role models or for that matter just good citizens. I think when Charles stated that he is no role model it was his way of saying don't hold me responsible for the wrong I do. Then when he gets caught he can say…see I told you I am no role model. We all need to work on our inner demons.
The Role Models Our Children Choose– has been a topic of discussion more times than I can remember in my classrooms. Unfortunately, children, especially teenagers, don't often choose wisely, the people they admire and imitate. And, we adults do hold Black celebrities to hire standards–so of course I was disappointed in Muhammed Ali, Dr. J, Bill Cosby, Jessie Jackson and a few others when I found out they hadn't lived up to MY impossible standards. Now, I know better and I act differently. I try to tell children better: that we emulate the admirable qualities and actions of those we choose as our Role Models and that we understand that they are, as Luther sang–only human. I know now, more than I ever have before, how many of my students consider their teachers as their role models–they don't expect us to curse, to dress inappropriately, to drink, to use drugs or to engage in any activity that we discourage them from doing–and rightly so. We can't get away with telling them: "Do as I say, not as I do" OR "Because I said so." We each must become the best that we can possibly be and not hold our role models to our impossible standards of behavior. Angela
@Angela: Thank you so much for your words. I can certainly get behind what you're sayingâ€”that my standards of behavior may be wholly different from someone else's. But I don't think those standards are impossible; indeed, at best, they are the minimalist of expectations: Don't show up in a fancy gown to an awards ceremony, stumble across the stage and slur through your acceptance speech. Don't pull out a gun in the lockerroom while you're at work and should be focused on the job at hand: winning a basketball game. These are VERY basic acts of self-control that one expects from human beings who have at least an ounce of respect not only for those who are watching and looking up to them, but also themselves. Sure, there are plenty of standards that I have that may not necessarily jibe with the standards you hold dear in your house. But there are basic rules of civilized people that should be followed, and quite frankly, I can't see myself giving a pass to these folks for acting in this kind of manner in public. As a mother, it's my duty to point at them and say to my kids, "Whatever you do, baby, don't look up to that guy. We all expect better of you."