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24 JANUARY 2001
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essay

Role models

Real role-models need to be close at hand where can they show us what we can be they are not the remote superstars the media offer us who show us what we cannot hope to be. Brian Gannon challenges us to put more thinking into the value of peer groups.

Time was that ones hero was in the school or varsity team or stage play or activity group and we could look on and hope to be like them. The role model was a crucial guide showing us the next step in the progression we were busy with. We observed and learned the skills and the style which led us to our next identity platform. Then we could be there for a bit, while we considered new choices. The truly gifted sports player or actor or writer might look up to Olympic levels, Broadway levels, bestseller levels, knowing that they might get there some day, but most of us were not reaching that high, only for the next stage.

For youth today role models are important resources, as we position kids to see the next step, something to strive for, a pattern which can work for them. But with at-risk kids, role models must be much nearer at hand: the gap must be shorter, the jump reachable not discouragingly remote. We know that at-risk kids have less spare energy, less capacity to wait, less belief in themselves. We know that we must walk alongside them a step at a time and that real success for many, if not most of them, is to reach to the average.

So our programs are careful to keep role models in view. Maybe the kids can reach from the D" team to the C" team, so we use the C" team as a goal to be aimed for; and we show them to value a good try" as much as success. We lend them our enthusiasm as they move from crawling to walking so that they might see the possibility of running and, in its own good time, maybe even flying!. We pace them, showing them achievable visions.

Today the media claim the world's top achievers and turn them into an elite group of performers and high earners. The only currency is the A" team. They call them role models, but they're not much use to us in our work. There is this group of super-heroes ... and the rest of us. The world gets the message we can never reach there; we can only sit and watch." So we lose our role models as they are swept away into stardom. True role models help kids to think I could be like that" not I could never be like that!" There isnt a TV channel for the C" team to inspire our kids and certainly no channel for the D" team.

In our advocacy, and certainly in our local communities and schools and programs, we must defy this dichotomous model of the celebrity group ... and the rest. It encourages the idea of role-models out of reach. Our schools often imitate the media by awarding the prizes and the limelight only to the top performers whether academic or sporting with scant mention of everyone else. This does not fit with one of the central values of our trade: that all people are worthy of respect and dignity.

Especially with troubled kids, we must rethink the content and the pacing of the curriculum we offer in our programs. We need to fill in the detail of the continuum, the incremental nature of development, teaching and demonstrating the what and how" of getting from here to there. When we work with kids who are battling developmental glitches and trying to catch up, we temporarily recalibrate the track from metres to millimetres (or yards to inches), and we work harder at the bite-sized tasks. We facilitate for them the small successes. We lean a step-ladder against the wall they are trying to get over and point up the value of each next step.

In this way we add value and energy to our programs, because the youngster who makes the small gain can already be a role model for the person just behind and so as each lift their eyes to the next step they see and are encouraged and inspired by their peers, their real role-models, who are right there on that next step rather than all those media superstars who live on another planet.

The International Child and Youth Care Network
THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net)

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