A Role Model, Me? You've got to be Kidding.

Rabbi Nochem Kaplan 


From the time we were youngsters we were told to identify and look-up to role models, someone who embodies some of the qualities we should be emulating.

I had a number of role models and I was disappointed later when I saw their weaknesses and learned they were just as human as I was. They had just as many human frailties as I did. What I wish I had, was not necessarily someone whom I idolized but someone who could show me how he got there. I should have had someone who not only showed me 'what' but more importantly, taught me 'how'.

The Rebbe, Ob"m, demanded that parents and teachers should be role models of proper attitudes and behaviors. We should be the kind of people to whom our children would be able to justifiably look up to. Young people should be able to look at us and see the embodiment of the ideal behaviors they learn about.

I think that some of my friends are indeed the kind of role model described. As far as I can tell they do not have nearly the kind of following that would suggest that they are successful role models. Is it them? Is it myopia on my part? Perhaps it's that the young people don't see what I see.

I would like to suggest that being a role model is not a passive position but it is rather an active exercise. It means assuming a proactive role of mentor and guide. It means discussing what is expected, what the choices are and why a particular choice was made. 

Let me share a recent experience. I was a guest at the home of my daughter and son-in-law, over Shabbos. They live downtown and maintain an active Chabad House but they do not always have a minyan. Typically my son-in-law, as a good Shliach, walks to a Chabad House on a college campus some four miles away. He wears his talis as walks through the almost deserted streets Shabbos morning.

I suggested before Shabbos that it may a good idea to drop off our taleysim at the Chabad House on Friday so that we not burdened as we walk for well over an hour. He declined saying that when he walks through the streets dressed in a talis he reminds passersby that it's Shabbos. He greets them and they return his 'Shabbat Shalom' greeting.

My seven year old grandson frequently accompanies his father and never questions him as to why he chooses to wear his talis. This Shabbos morning he was preoccupied by the fact that he would be seeing his friend Dovid and what they would do before, during, and after the davening.

I asked him if he understood why his father chooses to wear his talis as he walks, of course it never occurred to him to ask. I told him as we walked, that we could have just as easily dropped off our taleysim but his father wanted those whom he passed on the street to remember it was Shabbos.

It was as though a light turned on in my grandsons head.

"Oh, and then he says 'good Shabbos' and they feel a little bit of Shabbos". This time, as we walked, he joined in greeting people; he had learned a real lesson. He could easily have continued to be oblivious to his father's reasoning, but now he will remember the experience and learn from it.

As parents and teachers we make choices and decisions all the time and we presume our children are learning from our example.  If we make the role model idea a proactive exercise then we can assume to be mentors and guides to our children.

Let's say your child is caught telling a "white lie"; you have some choices to make. You may continue to press the issue and likely elicit some superficial remorse (meaning I'm sorry I was stupid enough to get caught) or the child may compound the lie with another in an attempt to cover up the first. The wisest course is to have a talk about the importance of telling the truth.

Now, if having had the little "truth" lesson, I say to the child 'here is what my choices were when I discovered that you had been less than truthful… lets accentuate the positive. We all make mistakes but we must learn from them. Telling a white lie seems so harmless but it can lead to more white lies and people appreciate when you tell the truth...' The child will learn a real lesson.

Thoughtful parenting (and teaching) uses any and all opportunities which present themselves to actively teach and model desired behavior. It seems to me that being a role model doesn't mean that one must be a perfect paradigm of virtue, the connotation is rather to actively teach desired behaviors by modeling and explaining why we did what we did and what we hope the children will learn.

The Lubavitcher Rabayim asked of their disciples to make it their business to spend a half an hour of daily thinking about their children's upbringing and education. By our being thoughtful parents and role models we are substantiating their teachings.