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.

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It’s Okay to Be Different and Other Important Lessons Our Children Need to Learn

I was asked to give a sermon at First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati and it was recorded. You can watch the video or read the full transcript below.

TRANSCRIPT: Good morning. My name is Laura Stanton and I have been a member of First Church for 3 years. I am part of the “Stuff Family” that is made up of my husband, Steve Duff, and my 2 kids. I need to thank them for being patient with me while I worked on this last week (and last night). I also want to thank my parents and my in-laws for coming this morning to root me on!

When you are on this side of the podium you get a much better appreciation for all the working pieces that come together every week to make a service happen. I appreciate the Worship Committee giving me this opportunity. I also want to thank June for her guidance preparing the service and Jera for incorporating my music requests! Thank you to everyone who made today happen.

Before I dive in, I want to tell you a little bit about my background and upbringing. I am a native Cincinnatian and not surprisingly my favorite restaurants are Skyline, LaRosa’s and Frisch’s. I love watching the Reds play but I have never been to a Bengals game, nor do I desire to do so.

I am from the Eastside and I graduated from Turpin HS. If I were trying to tell someone about my background, the best analogy I have is The Wizard of Oz. Growing up in Anderson Township was a bit like living in Kansas. My world was black, white, and shades of gray. I did not see much diversity. If there was diversity, it wasn’t something we talked about. In fact, like many of you, it was considered somewhat impolite to notice differences. It just wasn’t something you were supposed to do, so I never thought about diversity because I never needed to. Most people were just like me.

After I graduated from HS, I went to Gettysburg College, a small, liberal arts school in PA. For the first time in my life, I realized I was different. I became aware of my Midwestern upbringing, as well as my social economic background. To say it a different way, I become a minority. I was surrounded by people from the East Coast and people that were from a much higher income bracket than my family. For the first time, I didn’t fit in with the people around me. I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore….

I transferred to Cornell University in NY my sophomore year. When I moved into my dorm room, I found myself in the minority again. This time, I was the only white woman on my wing. It was uncomfortable and exciting all at the same time.

During my 3 years at Cornell, I felt like Dorothy living in Oz. I was living in technicolor. I felt energized and engaged. Even now, those 3 years stand out as some of the best years of my life.

Based on my experiences, I have spent most of my adult life trying to better understand how children learn about the world around them. I have studied and researched the role parents, teachers, and other adults play in shaping children’s views about diversity. And today, I want to share with you some of the insights I have learned.

To help structure my message, I will answer 5 basic questions: What? Why? How? When? and Who?

1. What Differences Are We Supposed to Talk About?

When I talk about differences, I am using one word to describe many things. In the book I read earlier, It’s Okay to Be Different, Todd Parr uses many valuable and fun ways to think about differences. With that in mind, I encourage you to reflect and think about how you would describe yourself. If you need help, think about how someone who knows you well would describe you? Think about what makes you unique?

REFLECT: Take just a few moments to think about this……….

I have found that when we talk about diversity, we often do 2 things. First, we start thinking about everyone else and skip the self-reflection. But it’s important for us to recognize who we are and what we bring to the table.

Second, we often think about the demographic differences that divide us: skin color, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social class, age, ability, etc. But sometimes we forget to think about the more personal and smaller differences, like whether or not you’re a dog or a cat person, if you prefer Marvel or DC Comics, if you’re an introvert or extrovert, or whether you will be cheering for the Eagles or Patriots. Or maybe you could care less! ;-).

It’s also important to mention the many layers of diversity. Really, we should think of differences like an onion. There are layers of things that make us different. At the very core are individual differences, shaped by our biology, personality, and individual quirks. The next layer is about our relationships with others including our partner, spouse, friends, co-workers, etc. The next layer is about family, which is also complicated because that includes the family we grew up in, as well as the family we create. We can keep going, we recognize that every single layer is unique to us. While my focus today is on the individual layer, I want to acknowledge the diversity that exists beyond ourselves.

2. Why Talk About Differences?

If you haven’t noticed, or if you haven’t seen the statistics, our country is changing rapidly. There have been all sorts of Census reports about our demographics, but it’s safe to say that the country you grew up in is not the country your kids and grandkids will experience. The increase in people of color, religious diversity, family composition, and openly gay and transgender individuals are just a few of the ways our country is changing.

To better understand these trends, I encourage you and your family to read a book titled, If America Were a Village by David Smith. In the book, Smith shrinks down the population of America to an imaginary village of 100 people. The metaphor helps children and adults easily understand our country’s differences in terms that are easy to understand.

Another reason to talk about differences is because our UU faith compels us to do so. Remember the 1st and 2nd principles:

1st Principle: We believe that each and every person is important.

2nd Principle: We believe that all people should be treated fairly and kindly.

In order to honor these principles, we need to talk to our kids and grandkids about differences. We now know that telling kids not to notice differences (often called the “colorblind” approach) sends the wrong message. It minimizes differences and suggests that they aren’t important.

Another reason to talk about differences is to send a clear message that there is more than one way of being. Personally, one of my biggest frustrations with traditional religions is the underlying belief structure that declares there is only one way. Only one god. Only one path. This narrow line of thinking is the underlying principle of so many different forms of prejudice, bias, and hatred. Sophia Lyon Fahs, a pioneer of UU Religious Education, said in It Matters What We Believe, “Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.”

Compare that to the belief that differences are okay. This idea provides a worldview that has room for everyone. There are multiple paths and journeys. And all paths are equally good and valid. As Fahs says, these beliefs “nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth.”

3. How to Talk About Differences?

To talk about differences, we have to feel comfortable as individuals. We have to be grounded in our own experiences and perspectives. We also need to create an environment where it is safe and comfortable to talk about differences.

One way to make sure we have opportunities to talk about differences with our children is to consider an important educational framework that was created by Emily Style. Her “windows and mirrors” framework is based on the idea that mirrors provide the opportunity to see ourselves and our reality, and therefore, provide a sense of personal validation. Windows, on the other hand, provide us with the opportunity to see differences and learn about other people’s experiences.

As parents and teachers, we should strive to balance the windows and mirrors in our children’s lives. Doing so provides children with an equal understanding of themselves, as well as others. This will help our children understand themselves and their place in the diverse world around them.

This framework helps me make sense of my educational upbringing. I realize I spent 18 years of my life surrounded by mirrors! But fortunately for me, my college experience gave me the opportunity to gaze out many, many windows. Without a doubt, looking out windows and learning about diversity were the most meaningful aspects of my college experience.

This is a good time to think about your home. I have no doubt that you have mirrors around your home. But it’s important to think about windows. Do your kids’ have the opportunity to gaze out windows and learn about someone else’s reality. Take a moment and think about ways you could provide more windows. Some hints are books, toys, movies, music, and invited guests…….

In addition to providing mirrors and windows, we also need some a specific set of tools when we talk about differences. In the late 80s, a progressive group of educators developed an anti-bias approach to cultural diversity. They wanted to do more than simply acknowledge diversity. They wanted to help children learn to embrace, respect, and celebrate differences.

Their anti-bias approach tells us that we need to do 3 things when we talk to our children about differences. We need to:

  1. Acknowledge cultural differences.
  2. Find similarities in spite of the differences.
  3. Respect the difference, without judgment.

These elements have to be part of the conversations we have with our children. Let me give you an example. Let’s imagine your child notices that the eyes of her Asian friend are a different shape than her eyes. She asks you, “Why does Mai have funny-looking eyes?”

An anti-bias response may be:

Element 1: “I don’t think Mai has funny-looking eyes. She has eyes that are a different shape than yours.” (Acknowledge the difference)

Element 2: “Mai’s eyes are almond-shaped just like her parents’ eyes. Your eyes are round, just like your parents’ eyes.” (Find a similarity)

Element 3: “Both you and Mai have beautiful eyes, even though they are different shapes.” (Respect the difference)

REFLECT: Consider a time your child asked a question about a difference that you didn’t know how to answer or you think you didn’t answer well. Take a moment and see if you can create an anti-bias response to their question. Remember it needs to include all 3 elements.

One other footnote about how to talk about differences comes from disability studies.  Their important advice: use people-first language. What does that mean? When you are describing someone, focus on the person before the label. Say “a man is Jewish” rather than “a Jewish man”. “The girl who is blind” rather than saying “the blind girl”. It’s an easy and important way to be respectful. Focus on the person first!

Knowing how to talk about differences will help prepare your children to understand a world that is increasingly diverse. When you include the anti-bias approach in your conversations, you send healthy messages about differences to your child. In doing so, you will help them develop cultural competence, a beneficial and necessary asset to have in today’s world.

4. When Should You Talk About Differences?

Every chance you get! If you need help tackling an especially difficult issue, my best advice is to head to the library. I am a firm believer that no one is too old for children’s books. You can find a children’s book about all sorts of diversity topics, including adoption, growing up with 2 moms, having a parent in jail, getting around in a wheelchair, and talking about different skin colors.

There is even research that suggests that children’s books about cultural diversity facilitate a personal connection between the reader and the story, which leads to more empathetic behavior.

So find books that help you feel comfortable. Read them over a few times and when you’re ready, share them with your kids or grandkids. Be ready for a discussion and incorporate the anti-bias approach, but also realize there might not be a discussion. The truth is that kids accept differences a lot easier than adults to. Sometimes when I tackle a topic I think may be difficult, my kids totally surprise me with their understanding, sensitivity, and empathy.

I also want to give you permission to stall for time. If you are caught off guard and don’t know what to say, that’s okay. But if your child says something that makes you or someone else feel uncomfortable, you need to address it. You can decide the best time to do so but letting insensitive or hurtful comments “slide” teaches your child the wrong message. No matter what, we want our children and grandchildren to see that it is okay to ask questions, that it’s normal to talk about differences, and it’s important to be respectful.

5. Who Should Talk About Differences?

All of us need to talk about differences. As I stand here today, I am aware that my perspective has to do with my life journey and experiences. I am just one person and I know others in this room have different perspectives to share.

It’s also important to remember that we need to be responsible for our own learning. If you have questions about a cultural group or a difference, educate yourself. Do not expect someone to do the work for you. Use the resources around you to enlighten yourself and find opportunities to learn.

Finally, I want to mention the resources we have right here in this community. We have so many advocates, allies, and activists in our congregation. While I have kept my remarks very general, there are more specific tips and pointers that can be helpful when talking about specific cultural groups. Remember the people who are on the front lines and be sure to ask them for their insights. It would be a shame if we didn’t take advantage of the amazing people in this room who devote their time and energy advocating for LGBTQ individuals and families, immigrants, impoverished neighborhoods, people experiencing homelessness, public school students, fair wages, equal access, and many, many other social justice issues.

In Summary

If you believe that we our country is unjust and unequal, then you cannot be silent. These are trying times, my friends, and many of the cultural differences we have discussed today are seen as threats by our current President and his administration. More than ever, we need to speak up. We can no longer remain quiet. As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Our faith compels us to fight injustice. Talking about our differences is an important first step on the journey towards acceptance and equality. Realize that your journey will include missteps. If you get stuck, ask for help. If you make a mistake, apologize. Embrace any discomfort you experience, for it is a sure sign of growth.

I love the title of Todd Parr’s book because it’s a wonderful mantra, “it’s okay to be different.” This phrase reminds all of us, and kids especially, that the differences they see around them are normal, safe, and fun.

But the mantra, “It’s okay to be different” also implies that every kid and adult should celebrate their own differences. We should be proud of the things that make us unique and special.

Last year, the movie Wonder came out and was based on the popular children’s book by the same name (written by R.J. Palacio). One of my favorite quotes from the book is between Auggie, a young boy, and his older sister, Via. Auggie has facial abnormalities and often tries to hide his face from other people. His sister Via tells him, “You can’t blend in when you were born to stand out.”

We all need the reminder that our differences are what make us special, unique, and make us stand out from the crowd. Embrace those differences and celebrate them, whether they are yours or someone else’s.

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A Halloween Treat

Halloween has come and gone and I am sitting here slowly coming down from a sugar high. Our community had an elementary school Halloween parade and I walked with my daughter for two hours this evening. Halloween is one of my favorite holidays and I enjoy seeing the creativity and the joy that the holiday brings.

I had started a blog post a week ago about gender roles but I never got around to finishing it. But after observing and watching young children today and tonight, I find myself reflecting on gender once again. While gender can be a complicated topic, I just want to focus attention on gender roles for the moment. Particularly, I want to encourage you to think about the messages that your children hear regarding gender and gender roles. More specifically, I want to focus on the messages that boys hear.

For example, earlier this week, I was shopping at Target and I overheard a woman talking to a boy in the next aisle. I overheard her say, “Hello Kitty? No sweetheart, Hello Kitty is for girls. You need to pick something else.”

Last weekend, my daughter was playing by herself on a blanket during a soccer game. I noticed a young boy looking at her dolls and watching her play. This boy had nothing to do, so I said, “Do you want to play with Amanda?” As soon as I said the words, the boy’s father appeared and firmly stated, “No he’s fine. Unless he wants to go home and have a tea party.” I am assuming you can imagine the sarcasm and criticism in the Dad’s voice.

In both of these situations, boys heard strong messages from people they love that they must conform and behave in ways that society considers gender appropriate. Boys constantly hear messages that make it difficult and challenging to experiment and behave in ways that society deems as gender non-conforming…unless it is October 31st. Halloween is the one day of the year when boys are given a treat- the freedom to experiment with gender roles. Today, I saw dozens of boys taking advantage of this treat and dressing like girls. They knew that the holiday gave them the opportunity to do something they normally cannot do- experiment and deviate from strict gender norms.

A video is circulating on social media that validates the idea that Halloween is a relatively safe time to throw caution to the wind. And yet, you can see it is not without worry or fear. Please watch this short 2-minute video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NjFBzeeeoE

We will continue to explore gender roles over time, but for now I encourage you to reflect on the messages your sons hear from you. Would you be comfortable with your son dressing up like Wonder Woman on Halloween? Why or why not? Overall, do you find yourself limiting the things your boys do? What impacts and informs your parenting decisions around gender roles? Is there anything you wish to change?

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Starting the Conversation

In my last post, I encouraged parents to break their silence and be proactive in the teaching of tolerance and respect. I use the word “tolerance” with reservation because I am looking for more than tolerance. I think we tolerate tooth aches and tolerate loud music. To me, being tolerant means you are just barely able to deal with something unpleasant. I want to push you to move way beyond tolerance. I want to push you to embrace and respect differences. Don’t just tolerate them. Value the differences and teach your children to value them too.

How do you do this? Many people, especially those who find themselves in the majority or ingroup, have very little experience talking about these issues. It’s one of the advantages you may have if you were born with light skin, straight, male, cisgender, or are part of a majority cultural or religious group.

When I first started learning about cultural differences, I was working in an international preschool on the campus of Cornell University. We had children in our program from across the globe. It was a fascinating and deeply enriching experience. I was working with children and their parents across language barriers, cultural differences, and religious beliefs. How do you make everyone in such a diverse environment feel respected and honored?

What I have learned over the years is that being respectful of differences involves the ability to adopt a worldview that is comprised of three separate, yet related, elements. These three elements include the ability to:

  1. Acknowledge cultural differences.
  2. Find similarities in spite of these differences.
  3. Respect the differences, without judgment.

These elements also need to be an integral part of the conversations you have with your children about diversity. For example, let’s imagine your child notices that the eyes of her Asian friend are a different shape than her eyes. She asks you, “Why does Shuji have funny-looking eyes?”

A culturally competent response needs to include all three elements described above. For example, your response may be:

“I don’t think Shuji has funny-looking eyes. He has eyes that are a different shape than yours (Element 1). Shuji’s eyes are almond-shaped just like his parents’ eyes. Your eyes are round, just like your parents’ eyes (Element 2). Both you and Shuji have beautiful eyes, even though they are different shapes (Element 3).”

Preparing your children to understand and respect differences is one of the best gifts you can give them as they enter a world that is increasingly diverse. It starts with the ability to talk about cultural differences in a healthy and respectful way. As long as you include all three elements in your conversations, you will send a healthy message about differences to your child. In doing so, you will help your children develop cultural competence, a beneficial and necessary asset to have in today’s world.

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