by Malia Jacobson
One afternoon, as I pondered the daily “what to cook” dilemma in the kitchen, the strains of an unfamiliar teeneybopper tune drifted down the hallway. I investigated. My 6-year-old daughter’s friend had pulled up “Hannah Montana” on Netflix, and Miley Cyrus was now streaming into my living room in all her pre-teen glory.
“Is this OK?” asked my daughter, with a pleading expression. Was it? I’m picky about television programs, but this one seemed fairly tame. The plot centered around a strong father-daughter bond, and the characters’ clothing and language seemed appropriate. I agreed that they could watch the show occasionally, as long as I was in the room.
Fast forward two weeks. Miley’s raunchy on-stage antics at the 2013 Video Music Awards made it clear that she wasn’t interested in being a role model to young girls – at least, not the sort I wanted for mine. I swiftly put the kibosh on their budding relationship with Hannah Montana. The decision was met with some wheedling (especially from the friend who’d introduced the girls to Hannah in the first place), but I held firm. The images of Miley “twerking” (don’t ask) were all I needed to see to ban her franchise from our home.
Did I overreact to the media hoopla around Miley’s performance? Not according to researchers. Statistics show that celebs hold plenty of sway over impressionable young children. A 2006 study by USA Weekend found that half of teens agree that their peers are more likely to smoke or drink because they see celebrities do it. Over three-quarters of teens think that their peers are likely to diet after a star loses weight, and some 60 percent want to copy a celebrity’s tattoos and piercings.
The USA Weekend survey found that thirteen percent of teens had dieted to make themselves look more like a celebrity. In another study, tweens cited pop singers as a top influence on their clothing choices.
Pop culture does more than glamourize damaging behaviors like drinking and smoking for kids and young adults – it can also distort their worldview. Research from the University of Calgary found that 60 percent of college students admitted a celebrity had influenced their beliefs, attitudes, and personal values.
So celebrity influence is a problem for tweens and teens – but parents don’t need to worry about it during the Sesame-Street years, right? Wrong: modeling begins much earlier than parents think, says parenting educator and mom of five Vicki Hoefle, author of Duct Tape Parenting. “Children start to emulate others as early as age two. Little girls want to play in mom’s makeup bag, and little boys start carrying around a hammer.”
A little later on, during elementary school, children begin to look beyond their parents as the inspiration for their identity. “There is a moment when a child makes a connection with a certain type of person. Suddenly they want to know more about that person, and they want to look like and dress like him or her,” says Hoefle. The influential “celebrity” could be a ballerina in a story, an accomplished athlete, or a young, hip teacher. For my girls, it’s their stylish aunt, who inspires them to contort nearly all of their shirts into halter tops.
Being enthralled with appealing adults – both real-life adults and characters in books and movies – is a normal, healthy part of learning about the world. (Phew – so I can quit worrying about my 6-year-old’s keen interest in sporting what she calls “a Rapunzel braid.”) It’s when kids continue their celeb-exploration without parental guidance that things get murky, Hoefle says.
Left to their own devices, kids won’t always choose appropriate role models. When it comes to selecting celebrity idols, “kids follow their instincts,” she says. “Then suddenly, we see an adolescent who is really looking to identify themselves and it seems very easy to just grab somebody else’s identity and put it on.”
Ready to lock down the television set? Not so fast. Kids who don’t watch television or listen to popular music aren’t necessarily protected from negative influence. In fact, sheltering kids from modern media in an effort to avoid the latest pop princess and bad-boy athlete can backfire.
“Preparing kids to navigate the world they are going to live in is a safer bet than sheltering,” says Hoefle. “Eventually kids will encounter the thing you’ve hidden from them, and they’ll have no clue how to interpret what they’re seeing or hearing.”
Megan Temple, a mom of three, takes a balanced approach to TV role models. “My husband and I both have background in television production, so we feel like television viewership is just a part of our lives. But that doesn’t mean we have to throw our kids to the wolves,” she says.
Allison and Emily Temple, 8 and 5, watch “Good Luck Charlie” and admire one of its stars, actress and singer Bridget Mendler. They recently saw her live in concert, and went home sporting T-shirts emblazoned with Mendler’s face. Currently, Mendler seems to be the epitome of a wholesome, all-American teen. Temple is aware that the image may not last – but she’s prepared. “I think it would be a great opportunity to talk to my daughters about the importance of integrity and making good life choices,” she says.
It’s a safe bet that many celeb idols will eventually be dethroned, says Hoefle. “Parents should be realistic. It’s likely that something will happen.” And that could actually be a good thing: celeb slip-ups are a chance for tweens and teens to see negative behaviors and their consequences from a safe distance. “This is how you use celebrities as a positive influence, regardless of the celebrity’s actions – you talk to your kids about what they’re seeing,” says Hoefle.
The best way to help a child resist celebrity influence is to encourage them to be an active participant in their own life, says Hoelfe. Kids with a strong sense of their own identity won’t be as likely to impersonate celebs. Encourage kids to develop their own style: Allow them to help particulate in choosing their own clothing, hairstyle, and bedroom décor, from a young age.
Don’t freak if your teen admires a tattooed celeb and wants a tattoo of his own. “That’s the time to sit down and say, ‘Walk me through this. Convince me that you’re responsible enough to make this choice,’” says Hoelfe.
If the answer is “not yet,” help teens see how they can earn more trust and responsibility at home. Making a parental power play – like an outright ban of any and all ink – can alienate teens and give the influential celebrity more sway.
Teens want power, and they are looking for ways to differentiate from their parents, says family therapist Caroline Plummer, LMHC. “Parents need to allow teens to increase their power and decision making in a safe way.”
“I can’t stress enough the importance of finding real-world ‘celebrities’ for kids to idolize,” says Hoefle. Spending time with families with girls or boys a few years older than your daughter or son helps build healthy role-model relationships that don’t involve a screen or the airbrushed excesses of Hollywood.
“Find other parents you respect, and tell them you want your kids to be in the company of older kids who can help them learn,” she says.
That, I can do. I’m already on the lookout for potential older friends with role-model potential (pre-requisite: must like sparkles). With luck, it will be a while before the next pop star du jour makes her way into my home, and my girls’ hearts. But when it does happen,
I’ll be prepared.
Find a healthy tribe for your kids: Give kids healthy real-world role models by connecting with like-minded parents of children a few years older than yours.
Expect celeb slip-ups: The reality is the many pop stars will make public mistakes. Use them as opportunities to discuss decision-making and personal values.
Reinforce your values: When watching television or movies or listening to music with kids, point out the messages that align with values you want your kids to learn.
Allow healthy decision-making: Kids will be more likely to resist celebrity influence if they have a strong sense of self. Allow them to create their own look and identity by choosing their own clothing, hairstyle and accessories whenever possible.
Source: Vicki Hoefle, author of Duct Tape Parenting