AC Education
4 min read/Published On: April 5, 2023/796 words/


Last month I ended on a rallying note, and suggested you look to Tom Moore, Greta Thunberg or Marcus Rashford if you needed a role model. This month, I think I am in a more reflective mode – but still thinking about role models. We all need them, but we are not always aware who they are or how they have affected us.

When I tell children to ‘wrap up warmly or you’ll catch your death of cold’ those aren’t my words, but my mother’s – and she came from Hartlepool where the people are warm, but the weather is cold and they say such things. But she died a long time ago.

One of our foster children and his partner had their first – very premature – baby on Christmas Eve and she finally came home in the second week of January. I visited one evening and, standing in the doorway, observed her in her dad’s arms on the sofa; he was whispering to her as he held her. When he looked up he grinned and said he was having ‘PTT’ with his daughter. This was something we did with all our children; it was ‘Private Talk Time’ and happened after bathtime and storytime (for the younger ones) – but always just before bedtime. It was ten or so minutes when the children could talk with me or my husband – whoever was doing the bedtime routine – about anything they wanted to. Nineteen years later – and he is doing that with his daughter. And I had no idea that he had even remembered that part of the bedtime ritual.

The children and young people who are your clients, service users or foster children have usually had role models who were inadequate in some way. These parental figures may not have set themselves up as role models but neuroscience tells us that the download from the primary carer’s brain to their baby’s brain is complete by the time the child is eighteen months old. So if mum is highly anxious around authority figures, such as social workers or policemen, her young child is likely to be so too. It is only when a new parental figure – foster/adoptive mum or dad – comes on their scene and develops a relationship generating safety and trust with the child that the rewiring of early unhelpful brain patterns may gradually take place. Until then, in any situation where there is the slightest hint of early bad experiences (can be just seeing a man with a beard – when mum’s boyfriend who maltreated them when they were two- and three-years old had a beard), the child will respond as if that person is a threat and they are being hurt all over again.

Much easier to understand, is the more obvious role modelling. A report was published at the beginning of January highlighting research which found that adolescents who grow up with a parental figure who smokes are four times as likely to smoke themselves (as an aside, there’s a film focusing on this online – google ‘Better Health Smokefree’).

On a different note, think about the outrage generated by both Prince Andrew’s alleged behaviour and Boris Johnson’s recent behaviour. Isn’t it because they should be our role models – and they are seen to have failed us in some way? In behaving as they have done some of us may feel somehow tainted by association – and resent that somewhere along the line we were duped into thinking they were the ‘good guys’. Doesn’t the same thing happen with ‘our’ children sometimes? Their birth parents may have left them floundering in a shame not of their making – and then we wonder why they self-harm and have such low self-esteem.

Returning to the positive side, can you recall an adult in your childhood – a teacher or a family friend or relation – who has somehow left their imprint on your life in a good way? And do you realise just how much they have affected and formed the person that you are today? It is likely that they – perhaps unconsciously – met a need of yours and created a sense of well-being through the way that they connected with you; their interactions with you created learning opportunities and made you feel better about yourself and your capacity to achieve. If you are interested in exploring this way of being with another person – a child – then look up Social Pedagogy, a branch of learning that has made a science of relationships and role-modelling; it majors not on what we do or even why we do it – but on how we do what we do in connecting with a child or young person, because that is what makes the difference.

Martha and Rachel