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Are Your Tween's Role Models Too Raunchy?

Role Models

The template for what makes a role model has changed. Once upon a time kids looked up to public figures like President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Today’s potential role models are more likely to include pouty pop tarts, bad boy rappers and the latest athlete to have a run-in with the law. Media saturation has a lot to do with it. The typical American child spends nearly five and a half hours a day with TV, radio, video games or the Internet. That’s the equivalent of a 38-hour work week spent with some undeniably questionable influences.

Tweens are especially vulnerable because the years between ages 10 and 13 are rife with experimentation. “They have a real struggle with self-identity and self-esteem issues. They’re working through who they are,” says Shepherd Smith, president of the Institute for Youth Development based in Washington, D.C., an organization that promotes positive choices and behaviors for children. In shaping their identities, tweens mimic those they admire. When teen songstress Avril Lavigne wore a sleeveless T-shirt with a tie, girls everywhere raided their dad’s tie rack. Similarly, boys want to wear the same brand athletic shoe as the one touted by iconic sports stars.

But role models don’t just impact fashion. They can also influence behavior. “There’s a huge correlation between early debut of unhealthy behaviors and lifetime negative consequences and addictions, such as smoking, drinking, drug use and sexual activity,” Smith points out.

What Parents Can Do

How can you help your preteens counter the impact of raunchy role models? It’s not as hard as you think.

  • Communicate without being critical. Find out who your children admire, but don’t demean the people they name. Instead, talk with them about their idols’ behavior or lifestyle. As Smith points out, “If someone does something wrong, there’s the opportunity to condemn the activity but not the individual.” For instance, instead of putting down scantily clad hip-hop star L’il Kim, discuss her fashions (or lack thereof) and the kind of messages clothes can send.
  • Provide options. “Make sure there’s a diversity of images available in your home -- in books, magazines, artwork,” says Antronette K. Yancey, M.D., a UCLA specialist in preventive medicine and co-author of a study showing that youngsters with a role model -- particularly someone they know -- have higher self-esteem and higher grades. “If you don’t expose children to a variety of role models, then in essence, you are deferring to what’s on television,” she says. When was the last time you took your son or daughter to a museum? An ice show? A concert that wasn’t pop, rock or rap? It may be time to go again.
  • Remember, it’s a matter of perspective. Your children might filter out their hero’s negative characteristics to concentrate on qualities that fulfill some special need within themselves. Lorana, a 12-year-old from San Francisco, is drawn to the singer Pink not because of her tattoos or spikey hair but because of her attitude. “She says it’s O.K. to be who you are. I think that’s a good thing,” explains Lorana. Your child may think the same way about the star she loves -- and you hate.