The Challenges of Being a Role Model

I had one of those parenting win/fail moments recently.

I got up early to do my morning DVD workout in our basement. My eight-year-old son stumbled downstairs after his obligatory cereal fix and settled down on the couch to watch me go through my paces.

Good, I thought between sets. He’s getting a lesson in what it takes to stay in shape. I never saw my own father do anything like that. Maybe my son will grow up thinking this is the norm. Maybe I’m instilling lifelong values about staying healthy and being active!

Then, while attempting to pause the video for a water break, I hit “stop” instead.


He heard that.

Another expletive (this one said under my breath)

Welcome to the wide world of role modeling, parenting style. Basketball great Charles Barkley once declared, “I’m not paid to be a role model.” And he was right, even though many youngsters still look up to their sports heroes, flaws and all.

Parents don’t get the Barkley option. They are role models from the moment their boy or girl lets out their very first cry. Get used to it.

That’s easier said than done, however. Being a good role model is like being an actor forced to stay on stage for hours at a time, with the toughest and most mercurial theater critic sitting in the front row. Make one false move and the critic starts scribbling in a tiny pad. Consider your child’s mind that pad – one with plenty of empty pages yet to be filled.

It makes parenting, already the most challenging job imaginable, even harder than you expected.

In our household, this role model routine could use some tinkering. For example, I don’t always make the healthiest food choices, and my children’s current diet is heavy on the Mac & Cheese (accompanied by something healthy they reluctantly take a single bite of and then show me their sourest faces). But every time I make poor food choices, I give my boys another mental excuse to do the same.

But like many parents, I’m at my worst when it comes to my smartphone. The two of us are in a committed relationship. We text. We tweet. And, more times than I’d like, my sons see us together doing what we do best. I feel like a cheating spouse, fearful of getting caught. The gadget is never more than arm’s length away. I have to check the weather app, right? Yes, I have an Amazon Echo for that. But still.

Is it any wonder my oldest struck up a similar courtship with his tablet? It’s like the hokiest quote from those anti-drug PSAs from the 1980s: “I learned it from watching you, all right?”

But watching us is what our children are doing all the time, even if they’re not actually looking our way. They pick up on cues large and small. How we react to trouble. The way we resolve conflicts. Even the tiny gestures we send to our spouses.

As a father, I spend half my time directly influencing my boys. Don’t play football with the restaurant’s sugar packets. Pick up that wrapper and put it where it belongs. We don’t talk about No. 2 during dinner. Ever.

Every parent knows the drill.

But I also want them to notice subtler moments. The way we treat people paid to provide us services, for example, like flight attendants and cashiers. How we interact with adults in authority positions, like police officers.

Sometimes it’s how we connect with the people we love the most.

My father treated my mom like his blushing bride. Always. He’d say nice things about her, give her a gentle but flirtatious squeeze for no reason whatsoever. They also fought, Costanza-style , the kind we all laughed at during the Seinfeld years. But the fights aren’t what I remember most; I remember the everyday affection. And it’s how I show my wife affection now. Random acts of romance. Get it, boys? If you do, future Valentine’s Days will go much easier. Trust me.

All of this has made me oddly sympathetic towards celebrities. I can’t imagine being a role model in the public eye. Every mistake is magnified a hundredfold. It’s no wonder Barkley took that very public stance years ago. Unlike the basketball legend, I’ve come to grips with my role model status. In fact, I daresay it’s even challenged me to become a better person; it has definitely made me a regular contributor to our family swear jar.