Superheroes and American Heroes Vanquished Good Role Models for Kids

It's tempting to tell kids they should admire heroic people. But what they actually need is someone to emulate.

As a child, I craved role models. My father was an abusive dry drunk, my grandparents were abusive alcoholics, and the other men in my family comprised a motley crew of deadbeats, drug addicts, and ne’er-do-wells — men who proudly reminded me that they’d only been to jail, not prison. I knew I didn’t want to be like these men, but the famous, socially-approved role models on offer were remote and unknowable.

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and astronaut Neil Armstrong loomed large on my elementary school’s bulletin boards, but the guy I really liked was Charles Barkley. At the time, I didn’t question this. Barkley had sort of backed out of the role model business, ceding the high ground to Magic, Bird, and David Robinson, by describing himself as a mercenary “paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.” I compromised by going hero-less. In retrospect, the issue wasn’t my instincts — Barkley is great — or my educators’ instincts —Thurgood Marshall was great — but that I hadn’t been instructed on how to model myself after someone and I wasn’t learning that lesson at home.

The idea of the “role model” is actually relatively new. The sociologist Robert Merton coined it (or weaponized it, it’s hard to tell) to describe someone who was something like a hero or mentor, but only within a given context. The concept of ‘role model’ can be thought of as more restricted in scope denoting a more limited identification with an individual in only one or a selected few of his roles,” he wrote in his book Social Theory and Social Structure. Sociologist Wagner Thielens, a contemporary and collaborator of Merton’s pushed the idea forward by conducting a study on the behavior of law and medical school students, who he found often searched for “a figure in the profession, known personally or by reputation, as a model to imitate and an ideal with which to compare their own perform.”

Role models, to put it simply, are supposed to model roles. Neil Armstrong would be, under this stricter definition, a good role model for test pilots looking to get in the space game but a fairly nonsensical role model for a heavyset latchkey kid who spent all day eating Oreos, playing video games, and trying to steer clear of his violent father. Despite what they said, the educators at my school weren’t suggesting role models. They were suggesting heroes. That was fine for the kids with actual role models at home, but it didn’t do me any favors. (And I strongly suspect that I’m part of a significant population of people that could have benefited from teachers dwelling a bit more on the specifics of Merton’s work.)

For Merton, as for fellow sociologists Erving Goffman and Pierre Bourdieu, roles were simply categories we and others occupied as we passed through the many stages on life’s way. Goffman, in 1956’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, examined how appearances onstage (for example, at work) or offstage (in the privacy of one’s home) altered the nature of our role performances. According to Goffman, not only do we “study” for our public roles by observing others in those roles, but we also perform very different roles at home and model our behaviors on different people (behaving in the manner of a more experienced supervisor at work, while acting in domestic settings just as our parents acted). And Bourdieu, most ambitious of all, articulated the concept of the “habitus,” a term that encompasses the habits and abilities that we come to embody through imitation of the peers and authority figures who are socializing us. In other words, role modelling was so critical that it impacted how we behave in public and private, and was actually stitched into the fabric of our being through endless repetition and observation  — which only underscored the importance of selecting proper roles models as soon as we become aware of the critical need for them.

And I certainly imitated the habits of peers and authority figures, developing a hair-trigger temper emulating my coaches and a disdain for 9-to-5 work that made my layabout relatives proud. Years passed without me identifying a role model that made any real sense. I had heroes — supersized wrestling and mixed-martial arts superstars such as Gary Goodridge, Big Van Vader, Butterbean — but not relevant role models. I’m sure I was not alone in this. I was certainly not the only kid advised to look up to athletic and pop culture heroes with whom he had little in common.

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The man who became my role model was my father’s brother, a soft-spoken intellectual who had gone to college to play football and then travelled the world to escape his own rotten father and small-town origins. When I was 14, shortly after a North Carolina court had made him my guardian, he handed me his dog-eared copy of the 2nd-century Greek historian Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. My uncle had read the book while serving in the Peace Corps and though the particulars of it eluded him, he explained to me that the work was interesting because Plutarch would conclude his paired biographical sketches of Greek and Roman figures with a short comparative sections in which he evaluated the ethical strengths and shortcomings of his subjects.  In other words, my uncle taught me how to look up to people in a critical manner. I learned the lesson and decided I should look up to him. He was, I must have understood innately, an ideal role model because he had emerged from the chaos of my family and built a life. He had done the thing I wanted to do.

My uncle held several advanced degrees and would eventually become a diplomat in the Foreign Commercial Service. He represented the first person whose habits of mind I sought to emulate in their entirety. “Emulation of an individual may be restricted to limited segments of their behavior and values and this can be usefully described as adoption of a role model, or it may be extended to a wider array of behaviors and values of these persons who can then be described as reference individuals,” Robert Merton wrote in Social Structure and Theory. For me, emulation of my uncle amounted to an all-or-nothing proposition. He would be my “reference individual” whose behaviors and values I would model in a comprehensive sense, because he had already managed to break the Bateman family curse.

Prior to living with my uncle, I had modeled the behaviors of people in very limited sense. I admired my father’s athleticism and my half-brother’s absurd physical strength, my mother’s dogged work ethic, and my paternal grandfather’s acts of heroism during World War II. But considered in a broader perspective, these were all troubled people who led very difficult lives, far from “reference individuals” for someone coming of age. My uncle, by contrast, was an academic who prioritized intellectual labor and physical recreation above all else, a mentor with the social capital to structure an environment in which I could carefully study and imitate his every move.

Even though my uncle might have been an all-encompassing “reference individual” —  a kind of North Star for my journey out of a turbulent adolescence — he was, like Charles Barkley, no willing hero. Like the rest of us, he had feet of clay and was a somewhat self-centered man still coping with his own boyhood traumas. Interestingly, this made him a more viable model for me, someone with the same struggles. The eight forward-thinking senators of John Kennedy and Ted Sorensen’s Profiles in Courage were great and heroic, I suppose, but not in a way that I could emulate. I was grasping about in darkness, looking for someone to light the way. My uncle did that. At the time, that was all I needed.

Now, as I consider raising a kid, I try to remember the difference between a role model and a hero. I understand that kids likely need both. But they need the former more than the latter. They need reference individuals. Society may want us to emulate great people who have saved lives, but kids need to emulate people who can help them save their own.