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.

Leave A Comment