Icon WebMD Expert Blogs

Healthy Children

with Steven Parker, MD

This blog is now retired. Dr. P passed away on Monday, April 13, 2009. The WebMD Community will dearly miss his kind, caring, and often humorous manner.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Who Are Your Children’s Role Models?

I am shocked – shocked! – that Michael Phelps smoked dope at a fraternity party. Who does he think he is? Doesn’t he know he is a role model to our kids? I wanted my kids to be him and then he goes and pulls this stunt!?

Actually, what I am really shocked about is the ridiculous brouhaha this has generated. Let’s face it, his behavior is not at all unusual for his age (in the only phrase from George W that I’ve appropriated: “When I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish.”). Of all his potential misdeeds, this seems a minor transgression indeed.


And, anyway, who says he is (or should be) a “role model”? The dictionary defines a role model as “a person whose behavior, example, or success is or can be emulated by others, especially by younger people.”

Let’s face it folks, your kids have no chance of becoming Michael Phelps, unless they too have a body like a torpedo, outsized hands and feet like a pizza pie, the wherewithal to swim for 13 hours a day, 7 days a week, a coach who will devote his life to their success, etc.

I work in the inner-city of Boston. Who are the role models of many of the kids I see? Mostly rappers and basketball players. Yet the odds of actually making it in life as one of those is zero. It’s completely unrealistic and misguided in its values and what they can accomplish in life. Why their heroic 6th grade math teacher is never mentioned is a source of great sadness to me because, with some hard work and motivation for school success, they could actually become that math teacher.


Here‘s where you parents come in. Much like talking to your kids about what’s on TV and what values it promotes, so too do you need to address this question of what kind of people we admire in life and why.

Sure, Michael Phelps did a very cool thing and loves his mother, but what about someone who has devoted her life to helping others, someone who started a successful small local company, someone who is really smart and worked hard in school to succeed, someone who teaches.

You get the idea. If you don’t push for alternative role models, who will? Surely not the media who are financially committed to hawking celebrities as the royalty of our culture.


I want to close this screed on a scary note.

I do know with 100% certainty at least one or two people who, no matter what, will surely serve as important role models in your kids’ lives. That would his/her parents. Yes I am talking about you!

Many parents think they are teaching their kids by their discipline methods or rules of the house, etc. But we humans – and that includes your kids (at least most of the time) – learn mainly from what is called “incidental learning,” that is, learning on the fly, learning by observing and interpreting and making meaning of what is going on around them all the time.

Be afraid, be very afraid: your kids are observing you and eventually will judge what kind of a role model you are based on how you behave, your relationships with others, how loving and caring you are, and how mean and selfish.

Some of you lucky ones will be 100% positive role models for your kids (don’t count on it), some will be 100% negative (I hope not), but most of you will be a mix of good and bad, with some traits that your kids will want to emulate and carry on to the next generation and some that your kids will reject and be glad not to pass on to their kids.

So the next time you are thinking about Michael Phelps and his bong, better to think of your own behavior and what lessons your kids are deriving from it day after day, year after year, generation after generation.

Related Topics:

Posted by: Steven Parker MD at 7:00 am


Subscribe & Stay Informed

Parenting and Children's Health

Get the Parenting & Children's Health newsletter and get useful parenting tips and health news you need to keep your little ones happy & healthy.


WebMD Health News