Children learn by imitation, a fact that makes it incumbent upon the adults in their lives to be positive role models. In today's media-saturated environment, however, parental influence is often diminished by the fixation that children have on the glamorous lifestyles of actors, rock stars and athletes. When parents allow celebrities to be their children's primary role models, the line between fantasy and reality sometimes becomes too blurred for imparting lessons about ethics, character and responsibility.
According to Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, author of "Einstein Never Used Flashcards," the convenience of TV as an electronic babysitter can diminish the active use of imagination. Instead of making up their own games of pretend and inventing original characters they can play, children absorb, interpret and mimic the images on the screen as a "real" world that is far more exciting and colorful than the one they live in. Likewise, if a favorite celebrity endorses a new toy, breakfast cereal or pair of expensive sneakers, his validation of the item's worth sometimes carries more weight with a child than a parent's opinion.
Truth and Consequences
The media's ongoing glamorization of celebrities behaving badly often seems to make them that much more appealing to impressionable children. No matter how many times a child is told by her parents that certain behaviors are inappropriate, disrespectful or dangerous, the double standard is still pervasive. According to Victor C. Strasburger, author of "Children, Adolescents, and the Media," a diminished emphasis on the actual consequences of wrongdoing confuses children into believing that whatever bad things celebrities do are excusable and, thus, should apply to them as well. Diane Levin, author of "So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids," further points out that the emulation of sexy female celebrities runs counter to the physical and emotional development stages of young girls; it puts them at risk of predators.
When celebrities portray parents on TV sitcoms, children may not make the connection that the stars are only playing roles. Nor do they always understand that the actors may have entirely different personalities when they are off-camera. By comparison, their own parents are likely not as funny, fair, cool or attentive without being intrusive as the stars of a fictional show. The skewed reality inherent in idolizing a TV family that can never be theirs can lead children to depression, rebellion and even a sense of unworthiness. In addition, children and adolescents who realize they will never be as attractive, thin, rich or accomplished as the celebrities they vicariously admire might decide to give up completely instead of embracing their own uniqueness and talents. Feelings of failure can potentially lead to obesity, substance abuse, withdrawal and suicide, says Dorothy Briggs, author of "Your Child's Self-Esteem."
Not all celebrities have a negative impact on the lives of young fans. There are actors who lend support to charities, athletes who launch after-school programs and comedians who visit hospitals to cheer up patients. These are the "unsung hero" aspects of celebrity personalities that make them inspirational and worthy of admiration. If your children choose celebrities as their role models, it's important to discuss with them the specific traits they like, respect and want to imitate; talk about whether these actually reflect the idol's true values.