Over the past few weeks I’ve received quite an education talking with my son and his friends about who their role models are. 

“Lil Uzi Vert (who?), XXXtancion (say what?), Kanye West (I’ve heard of him at least!) and AFL players, cricketers, NBA stars and American footballers.” This was my son telling me who his friends’ role models are.

Not much of a sport, rap or hip-hop fan himself, he told me his own were his (high-achieving) older sister and “people in books’’ such as Katniss and Finnick in The Hunger Games for their courage.

“Sports stars just play sport,” he said.
“It’s not you and dad,” he added definitively. “I spend too much time with you.”
“Maybe we are without you realising?” I ventured.
“Nooo!” He said shaking his head slowly and giving me serious side eye.

Whoever they may be, role models can have a considerable impact on a teenager’s values, education and goals.

Many boys look up to young men who happen to be good at sport, but some have also exhibited questionable behaviour. My son told me his friends were “shocked and annoyed’’ when Australian cricketers “let them down” by such bad behaviour during the ball-tampering affair in March this year.

The debate about athletes taking on the status of role models stretches back decades and across the globe.

In 1993, Nike ran a powerful TV commercial (available to view on YouTube) featuring superstar basketballer Charles Barkley announcing at the start: “I am not a role model.” He continues: “Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids.”

Leading experts on adolescent development agree with him.

Eminent Australian psychologist and author Steve Biddulph has just released a follow-up to his bestselling 1997 book Raising Boys. After analysing the latest scientific research on boys’ development, how it differs from that of girls and digital age challenges, Biddulph puts responsibility back on dads in particular to be good role models. He said if boys wanted to learn about "healthy manhood" they needed to see men in their lives show a wide range of emotions and be willing to talk through issues.

"If he is not able to say when he is scared or sad, then he might turn that into anger. It is always a risk with boys that they will turn other feelings into anger. So, sit down with him when he has calmed down and say, 'What was going on with you?'" - Steve Biddulph

Maybe I’ll try that with my husband, as well as my sons!

Dr Arne Rubinstein talked to me with palpable passion about the importance of hands-on mentors for boys. At his Making of Men camps teenage boys and their dads or male mentors (with the help of facilitators) complete activities to deepen their bonds while building boys’ responsibility and resilience. He said it was vital for fathers or male carers to share their stories, including how they struggled as youngsters themselves, to build an open, trusting relationship.

Dr Rubinstein cited Harvard psychologist William Pollack whose research shows that “an extra dose of dad’’ is one of the most valuable things a boy can get while he is growing up. But he said a young man needed to also learn from men who have had experiences that are different to those of his father.

For this to happen, he said it was vital for parents to “create a community”. “Make your sons feel comfortable about having their friends at your home and get to know their parents so your son has a circle of support,” he said.

So, despite all the public hand wringing when our sporting elite behave badly, it’s not just the people adorning teenage boys’ walls (or in their bookshelves) they need to look up to, but the flesh and blood people, especially the men, inhabiting the space between those walls.

Dr Rubinstein said this could be a difficult time for mothers, especially single mothers, who have to let go of a close bond they cherished with their little boy and allow him to spend more time with his dad. I’ve been through this heart-wrenching experience myself. It’s a bit like losing a close friend, but one can only stay calm, loving and understanding as a more mature relationship unfolds.

Here are some tips on how to help your son identify good role models:

  • Ask your son often what he thinks of others and their actions and help him identify what characteristics he admires.
  • If he wasn’t a gifted athlete, would he be someone your son would want to know, and why?
  • Encourage boys to look up to a range of heroes, both close to home and at a distance.
  • If your son’s father is not around, find other good men to influence him. However, make sure he can give your son regular time.

And remember:

  • No one role model will ever be perfect.
  • Not every male in your son’s life needs to be role model material. 


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