Charles Barkley, the great basketball player and television personality, once said at the height of his NBA career, “I’m not a role model… Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids. If you want a role model, look up to your parents. A lot of guys can dunk a basketball who are in jail; should they be role models?”
Chuck caught a lot of heat for his seemingly callous remarks because it sure seemed that he just didn’t care about kids or anyone other than himself. However, if you listened to his follow-up remarks, he clarified that kids should be looking up to their parents, coaches, teachers, and other adults who are sacrificing and training them in the real world. In addition to being obnoxious and entertaining, Sir Charles was “tipping his cap” to the real heroes in the world and downplaying his own ability to inspire young people to true greatness.
He knew that he was not even remotely qualified for the job of role model. And he certainly didn’t want any of that responsibility. He half-joked, “I heard Tonya Harding is calling herself the Charles Barkley of figure skating. I was going to sue her for defamation of character, but then I realized I have no character.”
Now, some of us want to be role models for kids. But if we are honest, we must admit that we aren’t worthy of the title “role model.” We are all broken people with insecurities and character flaws. And that is on our good days. However, perfection is not a requirement for being a role model.
So, what makes someone a role model?
Last year, I asked thirty teachers at my school two questions.
1. Who was your role model when you were 12-18?
2. What was it about him or her that caused you to want to emulate him or her?
All thirty answers to the first question were tremendously diverse. There were coaches, teachers, camp counselors, youth group leaders, parents, grandparents, neighbors, uncles, Sunday school teachers, music teachers, siblings, and college roommates.
The answers to the second question had remarkable similarities.
Four characteristics of these powerful role models emerged:
1. Transparent. They lived out their inner life for all to see. They shared their values and religious beliefs openly and honestly. They were an open book.
2. Authentic. They were honest and real about their flaws. They were not perfect and did not pretend to be so. There was no double life.
3. Intentional. They pursued a mentoring relationship. They asked probing questions with the purpose of knowing and challenging.
4. Encouraging. They transferred confidence, showing firm belief in the ability of the teen. They pushed the teen to more challenging tasks with kindness.
The central characteristic that runs through it all is caring. Caring enough to be transparent, authentic, intentional, and encouraging. Teachers and coaches should know that “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Personally, I struggle in this area not because I don’t care but because I don’t communicate how much I care often enough or well enough. Too often students don’t think I care when in reality I do care a tremendous amount about them. Too often, the love gets lost in translation, unfortunately.
It’s a flaw. But I can work on it, and it certainly shouldn’t discourage me from reaching out more. I can always go back to the basic truth that I can just be myself and intentionally reach out to kids in an encouraging way. I can do that much.
I think you will enjoy drawing your own conclusions by reading some of the responses:
“My Young Life leader. He was unlike most YL leaders in that he was not funny, he was not charismatic, and he was a little socially awkward. But he loved God and spent a lot of time helping me navigate the shoals of adolescence. I owe everything that matters to those things he helped me understand. I followed him because he was there, he cared, and he lived with integrity.”
“My high school basketball coach. He cared about me. He spent time with me. He had more confidence in me than I had in myself. He inspired me to reach further, to strive to greater goals. He had very high standards and was tough in holding me accountable to those standards.”
“My grandmother. She nurtured my walk of faith, was available to listen and interested in the details of my life, encouraged me to try new things, and taught by her example. She reached out to me and made me feel special.”
“My Bible study leader in high school. He would always pursue me, ask me how I was, encourage me, and really live out his faith in front of me. Regardless of what I said, he would still be someone I could count on. He was genuine and fun to spend time with. He challenged me in my beliefs, helping me grow. We could have a very serious deep talk or shoot water balloons from the top of the church.”
“My aunt. Although she lived 100 miles away, she would call me and send cards on holidays, and I would go and stay with her in the summer time. She was very loving and generous with her time, money, and heart. She could make anyone she was with feel like the most important person in the entire world. I remember one time eating breakfast in a local restaurant and her leaving the waitress a $100 tip. By no means was my aunt rich, so when I asked her about it, she said that the woman’s husband had recently left her with three little kids and that she needed the money more than we did. It was very impacting.”
“A college roommate. He took the time to look after me and love me when I was very unlovable. He was able to love me in spite of my bad behavior.”
“My brother. He had just graduated college and we roomed together for my senior year of high school. His easy-going thoughtful insights about my future college years and growth as an independent young man were not lost on me.”
“My middle school vocal teacher. She encouraged me not be afraid to perform in front of others and to use my natural talent to sing. She also pushed me a little to become better. She cared about me and invested time in me. I did not seem to bother her.”
“A friend of my dad. He was a single older man who was like a second father to me. He always listened and was interested in each of us as individuals. He was always interested in our opinions and asked us “thinking” questions. We were welcome and could bring our friends anytime. He attended our events and celebrations.”
“A 20 year old farm boy who was doing volunteer work at the hospital. He genuinely cared for all the members of our family, spending much of his free time in our home. My first memory of him was digging up our garden the Spring I was 10. Over the next five years I would spend a week of my summer baling straw on their farm. It is where I drove my first garden tractor (age 12) and farm tractor (age 13). This is where I learned to love plants and the outdoors. All through his life he has been an example of Christ, a life I want to imitate.”
“The owner of the summer camp I attended. He knew my name.”