This is not a political post. Far from it. With all due respect to the President, this is not about him, it is about me. The first time my oldest son looked admiringly at a public figure, I realized that I needed to help him understand the difference between a role model and an inspiration. The distinction is critical. In our world, a role model is someone who influences you directly. They are a part of your life experience in a way that gives you access to them as human beings, not just public images. Obviously, parents are the primary role models most children will have because of sheer proximity and opportunity for influence. My children have seen me express every emotion from joy to fury toward both them and the tv screen. They know how I react when I hear bad news, what moves me to show kindness to others, how I interpret scripture for our daily lives, who I most admire, how I relate to their father, my treasured memories from childhood and my favorite things about each of them. We have even developed our own language to communicate our likes, dislikes and questions when we’re in public. The last one became necessary when one of my sons loudly announced a pregnancy that wasn’t. Yikes.
Beyond Mommy and Daddy, the world of role models expands to extended family, close friends, adults and older children at church and other people who have a direct relationship with my children. My children don’t have any role models who don’t know their name, their parents names and our general stance on childrearing. These are the people who I allow to speak directly into my children’s lives with words of affirmation and if necessary, correction. They are the people with whom we have chosen to walk through life. Through the birth of children, birthday celebrations, graduations, weddings, divorces, illnesses and other life milestones. The inner circle. They don’t have to be our best friends, our even people we speak to regularly. But they are people we know and trust. Do they fail? Of course. Just like us. But because we know and trust them, we are able to put that failure into context as an age appropriate teachable moment for our children (and ourselves).
So who is an inspiration? Pretty much everyone else. Inspiration itself is the useful information that we take from our encounters with people, places and things that we can use in our own lives. The interaction does not have to be a firsthand experience. I can listen to the President tell his life story and be inspired by his accomplishments and his words. Given our country’s history, his election as the first Black President is an inspiration, by default. But truthfully, unless I get the opportunity to know him in a personal way, I have no real idea who he is. How does he really treat his wife? What kind of a father is he? What does he really value? I could wake up tomorrow and find out that he has failed miserably on one of these fronts. In fact, he has already taken political positions that I disagree with completely. But none of that changes his role as an inspiration because it is narrowly defined to the things I know about him that serve as motivation for me to achieve my own goals. Examples of inspirations are endless. Almost anyone can serve as an inspiration to my children because I am teaching them to admire the aspects of others that line up with our core values. For example, one of my sons is a huge Seattle Seahawks fan. We’ve never met anyone on the team and have no knowledge of anything about their lives beyond football. That’s fine. He is inspired by their work ethic and their “toughness.” That works for a seven year old. Another child looks up to LeBron James in the same way. No problem. My job is to narrow their expectations about inspirations so their main focus stays on the role models in their lives.
In my journey as a Black woman, wife, mother, Christian, and creative storyteller, I take inspiration from many sources that haven’t been vetted as role models. If you’re a person who likes random quotes, then you do too. Understanding the distinction between a role model and an inspiration has allowed me to relate on my terms to a morally diverse world.
As I write this, I know that the reality for many children is a lack of real world role models. I get that. To some degree, we are all role models, all of the time. No argument there either. This post is about our choice to help shape how our children choose to absorb the influences that surround them. I believe this approach with have lifelong benefits. Time will tell.
I look forward to exploring this theme further with more real world examples. I’d love to hear what you think.