When role models behave badly: How to talk to your kids

WASHINGTON — Thousands of fans turned up at the Baltimore Ravens’ home stadium on Sept. 19 to exchange their Ray Rice jerseys for those of other players on the NFL team — and many in line were kids.

It’s not uncommon for children and teens to look up to professional athletes, but great sports skills do not necessarily translate to good character. When those in the spotlight abuse drugs, engage in domestic violence or commit crimes, how should parents talk about it with their kids?

“I have four sons, and they love athletics, but I worry a little bit about the people they choose to pin all of their idolization on,” says Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert and clinical associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Kids who strive to be like Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong or Ray Rice may have a tough time dealing with the reality of their idol’s actions.

“As much as we try to keep our children from watching these things, it gets to them,” says Anne Marie O’Neill, editor-in-chief of parenting website mom.me.

It’s human nature to be drawn to people who are excellent at certain things, Gilboa says. And in sports, fan worship is often passed down from parents to their children. This is why it’s important for parents to open up a dialogue.

“It is important to let kids know the person that is their hero — the person whose helmet is on their desk, the person whose poster is on their wall — is someone we don’t really know,” O’Neill says.

Gilboa says parents don’t necessary need to discourage kids from admiring their hero’s talents, but she says to “see what you admire about them and admire only that piece of them.”

If your child’s sports idol is involved in a scandal, Gilboa says, it’s important to be honest, and parents can do so without sharing all of the specific details.

She suggests saying something along the lines of, “As great a player as he is, he was not nice to his family, and being nice to your family is even more important than great football playing.”

Parents can use these opportunities to impart values and beliefs to their children, Gilboa says. “I think it’s good to see these incidents as a great opportunity, as opposed to just a disappointment.”

How do you and your children deal with sports figures bad behavior? Let us know in the comments section of this story, on Twitter or on the WTOP Facebook page. Until then, a local mom weighs in on the topic.

Related story: How and why to talk to kids about relationship violence

When heroes fall
Frances Frost

“And that’s why you’re not supposed to hit your sister.”

Children want to make professional athletes their role models, and parents often let them because they exhibit all the external trappings of success: a steady job, an overly sufficient paycheck, talent, celebrity.

But it’s difficult to know who these athletes are off the field. Do they recycle? Brush and floss daily? Always tell the truth? Call their mothers after the game? Or do they drink and drive, take drugs, get involved in shootings and hit their wives?

By the time we find out the answers, the kids have already picked them as their favorite players; they are wearing their jerseys and have their posters on their walls.

Then what?

The once-esteemed role model turns into the anti-role model; the imitated star becomes the model of what not to do. But poor behavior isn’t a problem limited to sports. Turn on the TV and you will likely see “housewives,” cursing and screaming and throwing water on each other.

“See how she did that? How she yelled at her friend and pulled off her wig? That’s not how you handle a disagreement. That’s not how you treat your friends.”

Playing out on our TVs, talked about on the radio, posted all over social media are all the consequences of bad behavior.

As parents, it’s our job to fill in the blanks and talk to our kids about the issues played out in the media — why drinking and driving is a bad idea, why injecting substances into our bodies is bad for your health, how there are other ways to solve an argument than with a gun, and why it’s wrong for a man to hit a woman.

It’s hard for our kids to see their heroes fall. It’s hard for us, as adults, too. But it’s an opportunity for us to talk about our family values, our expectations and how we want our children to behave. It’s often hard to talk to our children about the important things, but when public figures behave badly, we can turn it into a useful conversation to instruct our children to be better people.

Editor’s Note: Frances Frost is an author and blogger. She released her debut novel, “Life in Spades,” last spring. Her blog, Just Piddlin’, is all about motherhood and fitting in what’s important — family, personal interests and time to enjoy. She lives with her husband, four children and rescued pup in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Follow @WTOP and @WTOPliving on Twitter and on the WTOP Facebook page.

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