The impact of Role Models on Motivation in Children

From: Ronni Smith
Course: Child Development 169: Motivating Children and adolescents in Educational Contexts
College: San Jose State University
Instructor: Eugene Matusov
ChildrenObservations: No
Date: 23 May 1997
Time: 16:47:25
Remote Name:


A childhood role model is anyone who can provide nourishment, nurture, and encouragement to a child. Those who serve as role models to a child demonstrate how to learn, and they guide and facilitate the learning process. In this final paper, I will discuss two main issues that pertain to childhood role models; types of role models, and why role models are so important in childhood motivation. I will broaden the idea through such examples of television, parents, and teachers. I will then discuss the importance through research significance and personal experience.


Historically and culturally, the idea of role models in the development of childhood has been established. Social learning theorists take the position that much of the learning which occurs during development is acquired through observation and imitation (Bandura, 1969). Therefore, positive role models for children are important in motivation and their development. It is obvious in our society that superficial role models are in our day-to-day lives. However, in reality, parents, teachers, and peers also play an important role in the development of childhood. Parents, family, school and the community need to recognize that children will copy their behavior. These role models in early childhood and their behaviors are important motivators in a child's future. Through the display of real positive role models, Bandura's observational theory, and history, the impact of motivation and role models for children in their development will be defined.

Anyone who has ever spent time watching children has noticed that they learn a great deal by watching the behavior of other people and imitating them. Through observation and imitation the child learns "chunks" of behavior all at once (Henderson & Began, 1976). The child observes someone in the environment like a parent or teacher, who models the behavior which the child is attempting to acquire; this in itself is a motivator. The child may not understand the observation, however, the child may imitate the observed behavior. When a model is seen punished for a behavior, the probability that the child will imitate the behavior decreases, and the effect is opposite with positive reinforcement. This is Albert Bandura's observational theory.

If a child is asked who their role model is or who they want to be just like, their response today is "Barbie" because she is perfect and "power rangers" because they are strong and have power. It has been suggested that media figures have taken over as prime source of ideal models for a majority of children, while real-life acquaintances are viewed less superior (Duck, 1990). One of the most prominent features of our society is the widespread availability of variety in the media. Television, books, magazines, and newspapers are everywhere in abundance. Television today is the primary source for children's media intake. The influence is great and no aspect of the media so completely pervades our lives as does television (Henderson & Bergan, 1976). Beron (1993) says that the impact of television on the development of children has been considered, and some popular programs have been reviewed. This review of individual programs, including cartoons, suggests that television is not promoting family values and is not necessarily modeling pro-social behavior for young children (Beron, 1993). The actual content of most commercial television programming seems better designed to provide misinformation and to influence the development of attitudes which few parent would instill in their children.

In reality, the ideal model should be the parents. Learning can occur in a natural way when parents serve as models to their child and demonstrate how to learn, facilitate the learning process, and guide the learning (McLain & Heaston, 1993). The role and motivation that parents should play in helping their child learn and develop is a big one. When the decision to have a child is made, a parent has made an unconditional commitment to guide their child for life. McLain & Heaston (1993) suggest that parents need to keep in mind the following ideas when interacting with their children:

  1. focus on "do's" instead of "don'ts";
  2. build feelings of confidence;
  3. try to change behavior by changing situations and surroundings;
  4. provide choices for children;
  5. work with children, not against them;
  6. set limits for children;
  7. listen to yourself and your child;
  8. set a good example; and
  9. show unconditional love to your children.

The most important idea is that of setting a good example. Parents are the primary caregiver and adult figure in a child's life. Majority of a child's life is spent with their parents and part of a role model is to display a good example that can be modeled and imitated by a child's observation. When the child is looking for information and guidance, this is where their search for a role model and motivator begins. Since parents are right there, that is who they should to for guidance and support, not the television. This is when parents need to evaluate and structure their parenting style and family values so it functions in correspondence with the child's response and behavior.

Another ideal role model for children is their school teacher. The reason for this is because when they are not with family, the rest of their time is spent with another adult figure and role model, their school teacher. Teachers instill values, goals, and characteristics in children as well as continue shaping those of the parent's. McLain & Heaston (1993) believe that teachers and parents can work together to achieve positive role models and guidance. With a teacher's guidance, parent's can improve their understanding of their child's learning through demonstrating how to learn, facilitating the learning process, and guiding the learner. Teacher's encourage, develop, and offer ideas to stimulate children's basic learning skills. A teacher instills characteristics in a child to help develop their self-esteem, values, and goals. Such characteristics include honesty, the "Golden Rule", discipline both positive and negative reinforcement, time management, and respect for both adults and peers. Just like parenting styles, teacher's have teaching styles that help them to guide the children in a positive way. As a positive adult role model, the children look to them for behaviors and imitate them just as they do their parents. So like parents, teachers need to set a good example.

Through history the idea of children having a good role model and motivator to follow has not changed. However the type of role models that children have, has changed a great deal. In the medieval times, there was little distinction between adults and children. However, the children had to model someone, so they modeled their parents. Family structure and values were very important in the 15th- through 19th- centuries. These centuries were based on reality and values. However, today this is not the truth. The old family virtues and structure have been lost. Children are being neglected and not cared for. All discipline has been terminated. Children are guiding their own lives while their parents sit back a say "I've lost control." Parents aren't doing their jobs of distinguishing between reality and fantasy and right and wrong. The children are becoming the adults while the adults are becoming the children. The child is running the show. This is not a role model. The child has nothing to model but their peers and the media. A lot of this decline of course deals with socio-economic status. However, as an adult, common sense says get out there and do something about your status. Instead of sitting around and complaining, be a part of the solution. Make children realize that not everyone can be a basketball star with a lot of money. You must work to reach your goals and aspirations. However, giving up and letting your child turn to other means of guidance and love is wrong. Parents like teachers need to be involved in their child's life. Children need to be motivated. They need to know that you are there. Children learn through observation, if a parent does not display a good example of unconditional love, the child will go elsewhere to find that love. The elsewhere can mean gangs, drugs, alcohol and the streets.

In my volunteer work, I am a role model. For nine years I have been working with children and adolescents. Through my years of observation, I agree with Garbarino (1995) when he says that we are a "Socially Toxic Environment". Our environment is hindering the development of our children and families. From economic deprivation and the struggle of affluence, to the decline of communities and the rise of high-risk neighborhoods; we are killing our children. People do not care. I have a cheerleading squad of 44 girls. On this squad I have met 5 parents. This is ridiculous, where are the parents and why are they not there when their child needs them or when she accomplishes her goal. When I have children crying to me and saying my father forgot my birthday, it hurts because I could never imagine my parents ever forgetting anything that had to do with me. When I have a girl on one of my past squads call and say I'm going to college because of you, your encouragement and motivation; it's wonderful, but why wasn't her mother there for her? "I wouldn't have done it without you." This is what my girls say to me when I show them unconditional love.

I look back on my childhood and say "WOW" my parents did a great job. If it wasn't for them, I would not be who I am today. They did it all. They instilled their family values, while at the same time allowed me to develop my own. They supported everything I've done and will continue to do so. During my childhood, my parents took a part in everything that I did from stage-mom to cheerleading coach, and from softball coach to dance performances, they were there and never missed a day. This interaction is important in a child's life and they will reflect upon it later and learn from it. Hopefully children will imitate the positive aspects. This is why the impact of positive role models during childhood is so important, they are the motivation and framework for the structure of their life, it helps to determine their outcome.


Beron, B. (1993). An evaluation of children's television. Indiana.

Duck, J.M. (1990). Children's ideals: the role models of real-life versus media figures. Australian Journal of Psychology, 42, 19-29.

Garbarino, J. (1995). Growing up in a socially toxic environment: Life for children and families in the 1990s. In R.A. Ldienstbier & G.B. Melton (Eds.), Nebraska Symposium on motivation, Vol. 42: The individual, the family, and social good: Personal fulfillment in times of change. (pp. 1-20), Lincoln: University of Nebraska , University Press.

Graff, H.J. (1987). Growing up in America. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

McLain, V.K. & Heaston, A. (1993). Early Literacy: A parent-child partnership. Atlanta, GA: University Press.

Last modified August 06, 2015