Ever spend much time with high schoolers? I used to teach sophomore English and often felt like an anthropologist studying a different civilization as I watched those big kids try out the same mannerisms, speaking patterns or even shoes that they’d seen in pop culture. And as frustrating as it may have been to their parents in the moment and as bizarre as it was for me to look out at a classroom with 85% of them donning the exact same haircut, it’s a perfectly normal part of development for an adolescent to imitate a peer group as he shapes his personality. (And it’s not without some hiccups along the way as they imitate those they see around them and we adults have to intervene. Hey class, it’s NOT appropriate to describe Romeo and Juliet’s relationship “as complicated AF” in your formal paper, mkay?)
While we do want our kids to express themselves and grow into their own, it’s also important that we think about who they admire as role models. Role models play an important part in inspiring us to better ourselves and the world we share. They give us hope and can both teach and instill us with values we carry throughout our lives. Some we may look up to without even realizing we are doing so, gently influencing and guiding us. While others we may seek out. With our kids, it’s never too early to teach them about people in the world with admirable values and ethics. As a parent, you’ll be a role model to your kiddo, but it’s also good to think about some of the great work accomplished by others in various walks of life. With that in mind, here are a few inspirational folks and their words of wisdom to share with your kids.
Oh, Mr. Rogers. What a kind soul. An author, television producer, creator and host of the show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers was a beacon of light offering words and images of understanding to young children and their parents. Mister Rogers focused on the social and emotional needs of children like their sense of self-worth and ability to love and be loved. He saw ethical development every bit as important, if not more so, than math and reading skills. His messages to children and parents are timeless.
"Some days, doing 'the best we can' may still fall short of what we would like to be able to do, but life isn't perfect on any front - and doing what we can with what we have is the most we should expect of ourselves or anyone else.”
"All of us, at some time or other, need help. Whether we're giving or receiving help, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That's one of the things that connects us as neighbors - in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver.”
“You've made this day a special day, by just your being you. There's no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.”
“Everyone has lots of ways of feeling. And all of those feelings are fine. It’s what we do with our feelings that matter in this life.”
Not only is she a revolutionary and Olympian in the sport of tennis whose been an inspiration to young women but she's also an activist for equality and a philanthropist. As a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, Williams helps establish schools in Asia and Africa and immunize children. In August of 2020 she, along with two other charities provided 4.25 million masks and educational materials to underserved schools in the United States. She founded The Serena Williams Foundation to help others achieve their best life and overcome obstacles through education, social welfare and community development.
"The success of every woman should be the inspiration to another. We should raise each other up. Make sure you’re very courageous: be strong, be extremely kind, and above all be humble."
“The day I stop fighting for equality and for people that look like you and me will be the day I’m in my grave.”
Bill and Melinda Gates
As self-described “impatient optimists,” Bill and Melinda Gates see equal value in all lives and work to reduce inequality through their foundation that is dedicated to improving the quality of life for individuals around the world. Their foundation identifies problems throughout the world in education, poverty, and health and works to find answers to create positive change for billions of people.
“Whatever the conditions of people’s lives, wherever they live, however they live, we all share the same dreams.” - Melinda Gates
“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” - Bill Gates
“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” - Bill Gates
"Optimism for me isn't a passive expectation that things will get better; it's a conviction that we can make things better - that whatever suffering we see, no matter how bad it is, we can help people if we don't lose hope and we don't look away.” - Melinda Gates
Dolly. Some people these days see her as The Patron Saint of…nearly everything? She’s a singer, songwriter, actress, writer, and also known for her business acumen as well as her humanitarian efforts. One of 12 children born into poverty in Eastern Tennessee, Parton is an advocate for literacy among numerous other causes and the Dollywood Foundation has sent out over one million books to children. She’s won many honors and awards for her philanthropic work and most recently was recognized for her $1 million donation to Vanderbilt University that helped fund the research that went on to produce Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. Positivity, perseverance, and hard work make Dolly Parton a modern day icon to many.
“If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another one.”
“The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you’ve gotta put up with the rain.”
“If you see someone without a smile today, give ‘em yours.”
“Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”
There is something so powerful in a role model who leads by example and recognizes the weight of his actions and words. John Lewis was such a person. A Civil Rights leader and member of Congress representing Georgia, John Lewis left a legacy of getting into “good trouble” when he passed away last summer. From his early days alongside Martin Luther King, Jr to his later years in Congress arguing for the rights and causes of marginalized people, he dedicated his life to protecting and advancing civil rights.
"When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something."
"You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone - any person or any force - dampen, dim or diminish your light … Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won."
Caesar Chavez founded what became the United Farm Workers in 1962 and used non-violent tactics to bring awareness to the struggles of farm workers such as low pay and unsafe working conditions. The union he helped found improved pay and working conditions for farm workers as well as helped establish legislation that allowed these employees to unionize and bargain collectively with their employers. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1994.
“I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us be men.”
“Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures.”
“Being of service is not enough. You must become a servant of the people. When you do, you can demand their commitment in return.”
Jane Goodall is best known for her research of chimpanzee social and family life in Tanzania beginning in the 1960s. She went on to establish the Jane Goodall Institute which works to protect chimpanzees in their natural habitats as well as improve the lives of people, animals, and the environment that we all share. The Institute is creating change by helping the next generation become conservation leaders through the Roots and Shoots youth education programs. Through nearly 60 years of work, Jane Goodall has helped educate the world about chimpanzees and the need to protect them from extinction. She also redefined conservation efforts to include the needs of the local people.
“Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall all be saved.”
"My job now is to try and help people understand every one of us makes a difference. And cumulatively, wise choices in how we act each day can begin to change the world.”
“Lasting change is a series of compromises. And compromise is all right, as long as your values don’t change.”
So maybe grab a few biographical picture books next time you’re at the library or even take a deeper dive into your kiddos questions about what they notice in the world around them. And know that your children may wander in their teenage years and identify with some less than upstanding individuals as role models. But if you ground them with the knowledge of inspirational people whose ethics and values you respect, I bet a little glimmer of that will always be within them and will prevail.
(And because there are so many inspiring people out there, here are a few more!)