What's the difference?
One comparative definition is helpful: “A hero is someone we want to admire; a role model is someone whom we want to emulate”.
There’s a key difference: While it’s human nature to be impressed by physical or intellectual achievement, or, on a more shallow level, looks or wealth, it takes a little more sophistication to perceive that which is worth emulating- character.
It's not immediately possible to gauge the character of someone who is an achiever: The media may only focus on certain aspects of the individual and either ignore, or be unaware of other aspects. Essentially, then, a 'hero' is mythological in nature, while a role model is not there to be recreated in entirety, but emulated in part: Those character traits which are valued by society, such as integrity, honesty, courage, humility, kindness and so on. Those are excellent foundations upon which to develop.
Your kids may enjoy listening to a musician whose private life is a public shambles. Sometimes kids may be aware of this, especially if, for example, that musician dies as a result of drug abuse. It’s hard to explain drug abuse to a child, but it’s also a helpful way of explaining that it can have terrible effects. It needn’t detract from that artist’s body of work (unless, while alive, that artist was promoting drug abuse in his or her lyrics).
According to a recent New York Times piece, “Seeing through the illusions of a sports hero”, viewing athletes as role models is risky- while we are aware of their successful performances, we often have no idea of the intricacies of their private lives. Often, the first we hear of their private selves is when the wheels come off, and drugs, crime or imploding relationships expose their human frailty. Instead, the piece suggests, we should simply view them as heroes on the field, but nothing more.
Sport, music and film are very different industries, but those who make those their professions, and are successful in those, are vulnerable to incredible pressures- pressure to perform, having to live in the public eye and so on. This may have a detrimental effect on their private lives.
If you sit with your kids and discuss ‘famous’ people, you can chat about why they are famous, what they’ve achieved, and what they seem like as people. Think of some role model examples whom you could compare with people who are heroes for reasons of sport or the arts, and explain why you think a role model is worth emulating. A role model may be a family member, a member of your community or someone for whom you have respect.
To err is human
What is important is to help your child understand that any role model is human, and subject to making the same mistakes any of us make. Human heroes are not super heroes, and role models are never perfect, but that which is worth emulating is what’s important. Chances are, you are your child's first role model, and the philosophy of "do as I say, not as I do" isn't going to cut it.
As a parent, you want to encourage your child to achieve the most that they can with whatever skills, interests and resources they have, but not at the cost of their character. If you can help your child to accept that, no matter how much someone seems impressive, he or she is simply a human being, then they’ll be able to apply that lesson to themselves, should they ever be in a position of success someday.
There will always be scandals where heroes fall from grace, and even role models mess up, but it’s far better to have your child pursue strong, healthy character traits than fleeting fame, wealth or fickle media attention. A 'hero' is a human, dressed in mythology; a role model is not necessarily an individual, but a composite of valued character traits.
Have you ever been upset by a scandal surrounding someone whom you've admired?
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