Justin Bieber performs at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee on Sunday October 21, 2012.

Justin Bieber performs at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee on Sunday October 21, 2012. Photo By Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

When role models go bad

Here is a column by our tweens and teens expert Maureen Connors Badding who wrote last July about what to do when role models go bad:

Look in any tween’s bedroom these days, and you’re bound to find the walls adorned with a poster or two of their favorite sports star or actor. Whether it’s a crush or hero worship, your tween looks up to that person and wants to emulate his behavior or follow in her career footsteps.

It’s a normal part of growing up and a healthy part of development, until the role model goes bad and falls from his or her pedestal. We’ll never know for sure if it’s happening more than it did 20 or 40 years ago, but we sure hear about it more and more each year.

The aging quarterback engages in sexting, complete with embarrassing—make that obscene—photos. The basketball player chooses money and prestige with another team rather than remain with his loyal fans. The multiple Tours de France winner not only uses performance-enhancing drugs, but lies repeatedly about it and bullies teammates into silence. The actor is arrested for drunk driving.

So what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him?

Absolutely not. Just because your child didn’t hear a news item about his hero at home doesn’t mean the kids at school aren’t talking about it. There’s always a precocious kid who’s willing to broadcast the latest scandal on the playground. You don’t want your tween to be blindsided by the news or worse, be in a position of defending someone who has clearly done something horrible. You have to break the news to him gently and in terms he’s going to understand. It’s an opportunity for the start of a great heart-to-heart talk.

Talk about expectations for heroes.

Your tween has probably figured out that you’re not perfect. Perhaps you got a speeding ticket or you don’t understand her math homework well enough to check her answers. It’s tough to admit and equally tough for her to accept, but here’s where it comes in handy: It helps her understand that nobody is perfect and everybody makes mistakes. She’s starting to realize that her larger-than-life hero is human, just like the rest of us, and might slip up and do something selfish, wrong or even illegal.

Kids see the world in black and white, and add shades of gray as they get older. It seems obvious to adults, but make sure your tween understands that the bad deed isn’t any less bad just because her hero committed it. Wrong is wrong, and there are consequences for breaking the rules—even if it just means ruining a good reputation.

On the other hand, emphasize that no hero is 100% heroic. A respected astronaut can be caught swearing in a TV interview, or a singer might have struggled with a drug addiction. We can still find a lot of characteristics to admire about them.

Talk about forgiveness and restitution.

We tell our kids to “forgive and forget” when they have an argument with their siblings or friends, but the real world is a little more complicated. If someone is truly sorry and tries to make up for the error of their ways, we should try to forgive them. But so often fallen idols are like toddlers: They’re not so sorry that they did something wrong, but they’re awfully sorry that they got caught.

Take this opportunity to discuss how your tween feels about someone who has abused his trust. The sports star who moved to another team for more money you can forgive and forget; the star who was caught drunk driving should pay his dues and take precautions that it never happens again. He’s dropped a few notches in your son’s estimation, no doubt.

Lance Armstrong? Well, there’s no way he can make up for all of the scheming and lying. There will always be his competitors who deserved to win but never had the opportunity, thanks to his cheating. Armstrong has lost endorsements, can’t compete anymore and has lost the trust of the entire country, but who knows how much he’ll suffer from the shame he’ll feel for the rest of his life. You can put that in perspective for your tween and help him understand that losing people’s trust and admiration is worse than any material loss.

Search for heroes in their lives.

Most young children list their parents and teachers as their heroes, but the percentage of tweens who do so drops considerably. (Don’t worry, your esteem will rise again when they reach their 20s.) There’s no reason your tweens can’t pick real people they know as heroes, such as the police officer who visits their school, their pediatrician who works in a clinic in Haiti every year, or the dad down the street who’s in the Army Reserves in Afghanistan.

Let your kids know about the ordinary people in their lives who are doing extraordinary things. Exposure to these people and their stories can help your kids realize that they, too, can grow up some day to be somebody’s hero.

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