There is no question that good role models have a profound impact on the lives of young men. This has been true for generations. However, the reasons we need them do change over time. Today's need is profoundly different from anything we have experienced before, because it can no longer be defined independent of other concerns. Rather, it has become enmeshed with and largely consumed by the cultural realities of today. Thus the question is not simply "What role models do boys need?" but rather, "What role models do boys need today?" What purpose do they serve in 2013 and beyond?
As any parent can tell you, from the moment their sons could strap on a cape, they were heroes. They were Superman and Batman, policemen and firemen and army men. They were bad guys too, sometimes. But first and foremost, they were pint-sized forces for good. Of course, those same parents will also tell you that come adolescence, their superheroes left their capes behind for whatever their generation had decided was "cool." And so began the age-old duel between parents and pop culture for the hearts of young men, a duel made infinitely more complicated by a social media environment that seems ubiquitous and not always a force for good.
This in itself is not new; but, until recently, for all the angst this battle evoked, there was still a sense that it was a fair fight. There was a natural balance between outside and inside forces because, despite pop culture's undeniably strong influence, there were innumerable times and places when it was rendered mute; and in these moments, other voices held sway. Wisdom was handed down in a game of catch, a day of fishing, or in long hours working together in the yard. It came in the form of family dinners, neighborhood block parties, and church picnics. And when all was said and done, it came in the form of time alone with one's thoughts, quiet enough that a young man might hear the first whispers of his own innate wisdom. Whatever the circumstances, whether surrounded by family or alone, these times gave young men the mental space they needed to evaluate cultural influences and to test them against real life and their own ambitions. And, because they moved back and forth between these two worlds, they were consistently forced to confront both their family's ideas of what it meant to be a good son and pop culture's message of what it meant to be a cool guy.
Today, that balance is largely lost. The long-tentacled reach of modern media is a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year operation that leaves little room for other voices. In music, TV, film, and every imaginable form of social media, our boys are presented with images of manhood that are as compelling as they are coarse, as unrelenting as they are one-dimensional. Masculinity is defined for them again and again and again by characteristics so far removed from the heroic ideals of their youth that it is nearly impossible for most young men to imagine how the two ever fit together. Thus, consciously or not, for many young men, "being good" and "being a man" have become incompatible notions. They can choose to be one or the other, but not both.
What boys need first and foremost is some of that old-fashioned balance-a way to help them hear beyond the cultural noise. This puts to us the challenge of creating opportunities that bring young men and good role models together in ways that are both relevant and sustainable. This is the starting point and the most difficult task, by far. Indeed, in today's media-saturated environment, with cultural "icons" popping in and out of favor like so many lightning bugs, the need for positive role models has never been greater or finding them more challenging.
And finally, "What role models do boys need?" Our boys need-and deserve-to be in the company of men who make them want to dust off that cape. They need men who are willing to serve as living, breathing examples of how the pieces fit together-men whose lives are proof that you can be both a "good man" and a "cool guy." They need men who, by word and by deed, redefine what it really means to be a man and present to them a vision of the kind of men they can aspire to be.
Kelly Johnson (B.B.A. Notre Dame; J.D. William & Mary) is an attorney and writer. She practiced in the litigation department of Williams, Mullen, Clark and Dobbins until becoming the full-time mother of five sons and one daughter. She is the editor of A Better Man: A Book of Positive Role Models for 21st-Century Boys ... and the Adults Who Love Them.