When it comes to role models, sophomore Amanda Farrer needs not look any farther than the front porch of her own home. She said she looks up to her older sisters who were editors-in-chief of the yearbook during their respective senior years.
“Allison was editor-in-chief of the yearbook her senior year, and that’s kind of the route I’m going in my life. So she’s kind of my biggest role model (of my three sisters) just because she was in journalism here,” Farrer said. “Laura was also editor-in-chief of her senior yearbook in Texas, and so I guess I aspire to be editor-in-chief my senior year if all goes well, so I think that’s probably the biggest way, and all three of them are hard workers, and like, stay out of trouble.”
It is not uncommon for teens like Farrer to have role models so close to home, according to a report published by the Barna Group. In fact, more teens today are identifying others they know as their primary role models. The study, conducted with a nationwide sample of 13- to 17-year-olds, asked teenagers to identify the person whom they admire most. The top results – family members, teachers, coaches, friends and religious leaders – all had in common the fact that they shared a personal connection with the teen. Personality traits and a desire to “follow in their footsteps” were the two most popular rationales behind listing their role model.
According to psychology teacher Robin Pletcher, the reason that teens tend to choose role models to be people they know personally is that the two have a more intimate relationship in which the role model can understand and therefore be able to support the teen. However, with a detached role model such as a famous actor or athlete, it is more difficult for the teen to be aware of how the role model conducts his or her life.
“It’s hard to imitate what you don’t know,” Pletcher said. “If you don’t have a personal connection or relationship with the person, you can only imitate their behavior (superficially). It (makes) a lot of sense that you would be more likely to imitate and to choose a role model as somebody you have a closer relationship and more interaction with. You can see more of the person’s characteristics in them, (and you may) share (similar) goals (and) values.”
And according to Pletcher, those are the factors that reinforce what teens may truly stand for. A reputedly iconic figure in pop culture, or a famous someone from the entertainment industry or realm of professional sports, it is difficult to see beyond their performance on stage.
“You don’t know the personality characteristics that they have when they’re hanging out with their friends,” Pletcher said.
Yet, Farrer said that in addition to her siblings, she also admires celebrity role models.
“I really look up to Katie Couric, because she was on mainstream ‘Today Show,’ and she left for CNN,” Farrer said. “She’s probably my biggest celebrity role model because she’s so high up in (the broadcasting world) and you never hear about her doing anything bad. She’s always very prestigious and very poised (even) when she’s behind the camera.”
Nevertheless, Farrer said her sisters have considerable more influence on her daily life than her celebrity role models could ever have.
“My sisters definitely have more of an impact on my life than celebrities do because they’re more tangible,” Farrer said. “I don’t know Katie Couric on a personal level, but I know my sisters on a personal level. They (would) come to me and tell me things, and I can come to them and tell them things and ask them questions. We have a very give-and-take relationship, and we’re all very close.”
According to Pletcher, personal role models usually embody these caring and loving characteristics, which are also two of the most popular personality traits behind the choice of teen role model in the Barna Group study.
“If you are looking (for) a role model who knows you well and (whom) you interact with a lot, it is going to be somebody who has that ability to show that they care for you and your well-being,” Pletcher said. “With family members, hopefully there is that loving, protective relationship as well.”
Junior Tom English said he also has role models in both the personal and professional worlds.
Klaus Thunemann, an expert bassoonist, and English’s bassoon teacher at Butler both are significant influences on his musical career. Although English said his professional role model does give him ideas and provides English with a paragon from which to learn, there is valuable guidance a closer role model can provide that a professional who one looks up to cannot.
“I always try and sound like Klaus since he has the most rich tone,” English said. “(Professional role models) make me want to practice more just because they’re so good at what they do. Other than that, they give me ideas about what I want to do with music—about the music I’m playing.”
Personal role models, on the other hand, give valuable encouragement to the people they influence.
“If you win a competition, they’ll give you encouragement,” English said. “Even if you don’t, they’re always there (for you), and that can be a really positive thing in terms of motivation and practicing and whatever else you’re doing, whether it be school-related, musical or non-musical.”
Not to be forgotten, peers are perhaps the most influential of all role models, according to English.
“I would say most of the role modeling is peer related, people who are my same age that are playing music, because that’s what I do,” English said. “They, more than anyone else, really motivate me to practice. When you’re in an orchestra, people expect you to play your part. But then there are people that you’re competing against—in a friendly way—but you still want to get ahead of them, especially if you play for something like college.”
Pletcher said she can see this kind of competition among peers as a basis for role modeling.
“If you see people around you (who come from a) similar social environment, you can compare yourself to them and judge how well (you’re) doing,” Pletcher said. “And if they’re doing a little bit better, that gives you motivation to try harder or to do more.”
Pletcher said it is the competitive environment that provides the best source of motivation for people to try harder and perform better.
The question of whether teenagers are too reliant upon their role models today to influence them also arises from this study. Farrer said she agrees that teens should follow their role models, but she said she acknowledges that there are limits to which one should imitate a role model.
“I think it depends on who the role model is, but as long as they’re being themselves, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “But if they’re following this role model to the point that it gets almost obsessive and they want to be exactly like them, then I would say that (would be) a bad thing because they’re losing their identity, in a sense.”
Pletcher said, “If they’re always imitating other people and never have any kind of individuality, (they will) never know for sure what they (themselves) believe in but always what the people around them like. If they order chicken noodle soup (not because they like the soup but) because the 10 people they’re with ordered it, that would be an extreme. That can be a problem. They still need to be able to know who they are and what they stand for.
(But) it’s still good to have (someone) to look up to, as long as they are positive role models (who show) good characteristics and qualities that you want to emulate as well.”