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Role Models and Choices

Role models are important but are not determinative

“We are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know
most of them.”
From “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky

If you consult your introductory psychology textbook, you are likely to read about the formative influence of role models, especially parents, in the development of a child. “Identification” theory describes a process by which a child internalizes what his parents represent to him, then emulates in his behavior what he has learned. Developmental psychologists emphasize that it is parents who constitute the most important role models in that their influence is crucial to their offspring’s personality development. Thus, if a child has as a negative role model an irresponsible or criminal parent, he is likely to identify with that individual and become like him.

So the theory goes. Moving on to another passage from the current best seller, the young man who is the “wall flower” says:

"It’s like when my doctor told me the story of these two brothers whose dad was a bad alcoholic.
One brother grew up to be a successful carpenter who never drank. The other brother ended up being a drinker as bad as his dad was. When they asked the first brother why he didn’t drink, he said that after he saw what it did to his father, he could never bring himself to even try it. When they asked the other brother, he said that he guessed he learned how to drink on his father’s knee. So I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons.”

During the many decades that I have interviewed criminals, I have found that some had one or, on occasion, two parents who were chronic lawbreakers or, in numerous other ways, extremely negative role models. However, their siblings did not emulate their parents and become delinquents or criminals. The environment offers a myriad of role models and opportunities. What the teenager “wallflower” describes I have found to be true. Children make choices. Many youngsters become honest, are hardworking, and become givers rather than takers even though their parents have modeled the opposite qualities.

I recall interviewing a young adult from an impoverished, drug-infested neighborhood. I inquired, “Given that your brother is in jail, your father is in prison, and your other brother is a patient in a psychiatric hospital (adjudicated legally insane for a very serious crime), why did you not follow in their footsteps?” He replied in three words: “I wasn’t interested.” He explained that, while growing up, he looked around and made a series of choices as to whom he wanted to be like and whom he absolutely did not want to emulate. He became a person of accomplishment with great integrity and emotional stability, a positive role model for his own children. He explained that he had been determined to build a life in opposition to the negative role models in his own family.

There is no denying that role models are important. But they do not necessarily determine how we will turn out. As Chobsky’s “wallflower” commented, “But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there.”

More from Stanton E. Samenow Ph.D.
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