The Importance of Role Models

Social learning and modeling helps us understand that our children are constantly observing and imitating the values, beliefs, and behaviors they witness around them. Modeling occurs whether our actions are positive or negative, intentional or unintentional, conscious or unconscious.

In addition to the behavior of parents, it’s important to consider the other people who can serve as role models for our children. It’s important to realize that the possibilities are endless. Role models can be extended family members, siblings, teachers, coaches, peers, neighbors, television and movie characters, celebrities, professional athletes, and characters from a book (fiction and non-fiction).

Because role models can have a significant impact in the lives of children, researchers have tried to better understand why children imitate the behavior of certain role models. Social scientists have tried to understand if there are certain people that children are more likely to model? Not surprisingly, the answer is yes. Researchers have found that children are more likely to imitate the behavior of a role model who:

  • is nurturing, rewarding, and affectionate toward the child [1]
  • controls resources [2]
  • has prestige, power, and intelligence [3]
  • is like the observing child, particularly regarding sex [4]
  • is reinforced for his/her behavior in front of the child [5]

These characteristics point to the incredibly powerful role parents play in the lives of their children. Parents tend to be nurturing and affectionate, they control resources, have power, and tend to be viewed as intelligent (at least until the tween years). So, parents who model cultural competence tend to plant seeds of cultural competence, while parents who model prejudice, bias, and hate plant the seeds of cultural incompetence.

It is also important to point out the influence of the media. Children are increasingly exposed to models through the internet, television, movies, and social media. Most characters in the media are perceived as powerful, prestigious, and intelligent. In addition, television, movies, and social media often depict behaviors that are rewarded and praised.

As the media, and especially social media, continue to have an increasing impact on the lives of our children, parents and other traditional role models may be in danger of becoming less influential. Paying attention to the influence other role models have on our children is an important aspect of parenting.

In addition, we need to be mindful that our current President often voices opinions that are bigoted and fuel cultural intolerance. There is no question that the President of the United States fits the criteria for being a role model. He has prestige, power, and controls resources. But what happens when a role model behaves in a way that clashes with our values and beliefs? This is when we need to take an even more active role in the lives of our children and make a deliberate decision to not only model cultural competence, but also actively encourage it.

We will continually explore ways to actively promote cultural competence, but for now, what are some things you can do to make sure your children are being exposed to the values and beliefs that you hold dear?

[1] Bandura, A & Huston, A. (1961). Identification as a process of incidental learning. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 311-318.

[2] Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S.A. (1963). Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66, 3-11.

[3] Bandura, A. (1969). Social-learning theory of identificatory processes.  In D.A. Goslin (Ed.), Handbook of socialization theory and research (pp. 213-262). Chicago: Rand McNally.

[4] Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S.A. (1963). Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66, 3-11.

[5] Bandura, A. (1965). Influence of models’ reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1, 589-595.


Social Learning and Modeling

Scientists agree that people have to learn to be culturally incompetent; it is not an inherited trait. No one is born racist, homophobic, or sexist. So how do children become biased? In order to answer this question, let’s take a quick look at social learning theory.

Larry Martin, a noted psychologist, defines social learning as “a form of learning that occurs in the context of a social environment, such as home, peer groups, school, and recreational settings”.[i] Through this process, social learning shapes a person’s view of the world, including their values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

Albert Bandura, a famous social learning theorist, performed numerous studies over the span of his career, including the classic Bobo doll experiment in the 1960s. In the study, young children watched a video of adults acting violently towards a Bobo doll. The adults punched, threw, hit, and kicked the doll. Later, children were left alone in a room with a Bobo doll. Guess what happened? The children treated the Bobo doll just like the adults had. To get a better idea of what we’re talking about, check out these snapshots from the study.

But exactly how much influence does social learning have? Years later, Albert Bandura and Richard Walters suggested that observational learning was the most important process in terms of children’s social development. Observational learning refers to the development of new behaviors and attitudes by observing, imitating, and modeling those around them.

The truth is, children are constantly observing our values, beliefs, and behaviors. Learning occurs whether our actions are intentional or unintentional, conscious or unconscious. The song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from the 1949 musical South Pacific perfectly summarizes how racism is passed along from adults to children.

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,

You’ve got to be taught from year to year.

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made

And people whose skin is a different shade.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight.

Though the lyrics suggests that adults knowingly pass along their racism, it’s important to remember that social learning can also occur by accident. For example, as a young girl from the suburbs, I can recall the sound of our car doors automatically locking when my family ventured into an urban or poor section of town. Without saying a word, my parents were communicating a clear message: We don’t feel safe in this part of town.

Take some time to reflect on your childhood. Do you remember learning social messages from the adults in your life? Were they intentional or accidental messages? How do the messages you learned compare to the lessons you hope to teach your children?


[i] Martin, L.G. (1986).  Stigma: A social learning perspective.  In S.C. Ainlay, G. Becker, and L.M. Coleman (Eds.), The dilemma of difference: A multidisciplinary view of stigma (pp. 145-161). New York: Plenum Press.