Children need strong role models

KIDS without role models often default to heroes. But heroes —whether rock-stars, sporting greats or You Tube sensations — are one-dimensional and of little use. So the young person becomes disappointed — even disillusioned.

Children need strong role models

So says Steve Biddulph, parenting educator and author of books such as Raising Boys and Raising Girls, ahead of a visit to Tralee next week.

The parenting guru — a psychologist specialising in families for almost 30 years — says science has finally realised what common sense always knew: role models are key to children growing up well. We have to show our children the qualities we want them to have — if we want them to be kind, gentle, patient, courageous, we need to demonstrate these ourselves.

Biddulph points to an actual part of the nervous system that does role modelling. “Nerve cells called mirror neurons run right through our body and into the visual cortex of the brain. They work by us first seeing complex behaviour and then making it part of our own behaviour — anything from sports performance to enthusiasm for learning, to sense of humour.”

The Tasmania-based author travels globally and “campaigns to improve mental health of parents and children”. Born in Yorkshire, he emigrated to Australia with his parents at age nine. “My mum and dad were great when we were little. Unusually for men of that era, my dad was warm and fun to be with, more affectionate to us kids than my mum, who — though loving — was more reserved.”

Recalling his own role models, he says: “I had a wonderful, slightly glamorous auntie, who had gone away from our cold, windy town to study and always came back radiating interestingness and nonconformity. She gave me encyclopaedias as gifts. Like all boys, I wanted to be an action hero, a spaceman! But I loved books too. She definitely gave me the feeling there was a bigger world out there.”

He acknowledges he “was definitely a problem child” as a teen. “I ran away from home, slept rough, hitchhiked all over Australia.”

A female youth worker looked out for him over a couple of years, giving him a lot of support and getting him into a student house where he could resume his studies.

“Quite a few people carried me along. I think they saw I had a good heart even though I was so mixed up. But because the most impressive people in my teens were women, I had to find males to emulate in my later years. “Thankfully, I found some great men so I could ‘man up’! I’ve learned to be a man and care for men much better in the last 20 years.”

Biddulph is adamant today’s girls need to learn self-worth – and that isn’t tied to looks or being hot or sexy. “The media teaches girls very damaging ideas about their worth – that it’s a contest to be decorative to boys and men. Wise women in their lives, who aren’t caught in that trap, are essential — eccentric, savvy, feisty, independent women. So a girl can think: ‘I can be like that’.

He believes there’s a huge need for aunties and older women in girls’ lives. “At around 14 years of age we reject role models from the family as part of becoming our own person. A girl thinks: ‘I don’t want to be like mum’, which is sad but it’s only short term and important to her being an individual. So we need others to take mum’s place. Otherwise the peer group becomes too important — and peer groups aren’t all that smart.”

Girls also need time with dad, especially trips away doing fun, outdoor stuff. “And less TV, certainly no TV in bedroom. It’s all about providing richer experiences in real life – glitzappeals most when girls’ lives are dull.”

Boys — more likely than girls to get into alcohol, crime or die in road crashes — desperately need strong role models too: caring, engaged men, who aren’t just one of the crowd but independent, clear-headed and wise.

Boys need to learn to treat women with respect, be good to talk to and relate to and be able to hold down a job, as well as have people skills.

For boys, dad can really be important from about age six to 14. “Most little boys worship their dads through the primary school years — that’s when time is best invested. But each boy has his own nature and it may not be like his dad’s.

“They need to see other men who may be more similar to them in interests. Perhaps dad’s into sport but the boy’s into music, nature or technical things. So having a group of dads is great — each can offer something to each other’s sons.”

Children, says Biddulph, recognise on an unconscious level: ‘I could one day be like that’. So it’s vital that we people their lives with role models worth aspiring to.

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