One of the first lessons I learned as a parent was that children watch and listen to everything we do and say. And generally, they never forget it. That is, they model their parents’ behavior. They watch how we speak to and treat our spouse; they observe how we talk to a clerk, a senior, or a custodian; they observe our anger or joy, our impatience, our compassion and everything else. Nothing we say or do – absolutely nothing – goes unnoticed or ignored.

From the time our children are infants they start becoming real people by modeling the behavior of their parents and then later the society around them.

If children see that their parents are kind, they tend to become kind. If they see their parents treat others — even others in a different political party — with respect they tend to become respectful of others. If the parents value education and exhibit a strong work ethic, their children tend to approach life the same way.

Conversely, if the parents don’t respect others — including those who are different in some way from them, or who abuse drugs, disrespect the police, or abuse their spouses — their children often follow down that dead-end path, too.

It is a widely held belief that the first four or five years of a child’s life are the most important and determine to a large extent who they will become, what they will achieve and what values they will hold. In a sense, we as a society are “all in” those first five years of our children’s lives.

The “learning’ done during these first five years is critical and to a large degree the result of modeling the behavior – the actions and speech – of those around them.

It is through role models – and modeling – that values and behavior are created and validated. Sometimes it works in reverse. I watched my physician father drink himself to death – a bottle of scotch and four packs of Winston’s a day. He destroyed his family and did great damage to many others around him. When my oldest son was around 6, I decided to abstain from all alcohol and cigarettes and for the next 20-plus or so years did so in order to provide an example to my children of an adult who did not drink, get drunk or smoke. They needed to be able to model an adult with healthy behavior and positive values. My decision therefore, was to model the opposite behavior of Dad’s.

Flawed role models or a lack of role models have unlimited impact on society. For example, one of the primary reasons that education in America is rapidly falling behind much of the rest of the Western world has to do with the growing percentage of U.S. households that are for all intents and purposes failing – failing from the absence of healthy role models, from the effects of systemic poverty, single-parent households, high levels of drug abuse and chronic unemployment. If children don’t have a stable home life and healthy positive role models, the odds are immediately and permanently stacked against them breaking out of the vicious cycle of enablement and failure – something we all foot the bill for.

Parent-teacher ratios, enhanced curriculums, length of school days and other academic strategies including school choice and privatization have repeatedly been proven to be diminished when undermined by a unstable home life.

Parents play the single most important role in providing effective role models. Teachers, coaches, faith leaders, Scout leaders, mentors and others of similar ilk are also important.

Socially and culturally, our role models are often found in famous people including musicians, pro athletes and actors. One would think that possibly CEO’s could or should be on this list, but they are not. And, unfortunately, these days it is more the exception than the rule that this category of role model presents honest and healthy examples for our kids to emulate.

Elected government officials are also — or should be — primary role models. They literally and symbolically help set societal standards and validate the values we hold through their decisions, their official and personal behavior and their words. The impact that elected officials have cannot be underestimated; they make a huge positive or negative difference to each of us, including our children. If it’s OK for the elected official to do it or say it, it’s OK for our kids to do the same, right?

My goal as a parent has been to instill in my children honor, a sense of right and wrong, honesty, integrity, compassion and a sense of fairness and respect – for other people, for other ideas and faith. I taught them to respect authority – including both the positions of authority as well as the persons in the position. I also tried to teach my children about empathy and how it’s not all about “me” but “us” – that we are all connected, and when one of us falls or is hurt, we all hurt and suffer. “Empathy” has always been that value often most difficult to foster. Role models – good ones – foster these values through their acts and words.

Teaching my kids these things was not easy. Preserving them in spite of the environment around them has proven to be far more difficult. Ideas and values are fragile things that can never be taken for granted or abused. They can be destroyed, distorted, twisted, marginalized and manipulated. To be preserved they must be nurtured, protected, and defended. Leaders – all leaders – bear the responsibility of not only being symbols of positive values but actually living those values as well.

The greater the stature of the leader – especially elected leaders – the more vital the responsibility becomes.

At the end of the day we must ask ourselves if we are willing to compromise any of our core values – respect for each other and for our institutions and respect for the dignity of all people regardless of race, color, creed – or gender.

We cannot afford to offer to our children or our grandchildren or their children any role model – any leader — who does not exude and embrace these core values, because if we are willing to sacrifice any of these, what really do we have left?

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