Lessons learned when heroes fall

January 29, 2013 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

The bigger they are, the harder they fall. It’s as true for celebrity role models as for redwood trees. And when record-breaking cyclist Lance Armstrong recently confessed to Oprah Winfrey that he cheated to win seven Tour de France races, he landed with a thud heard ’round the world.

As falls from grace go, it was a vertical doozy. Not only did Armstrong capture the world’s attention and admiration with his athleticism – the three-week-long race includes grueling stretches through French mountain passes – but also with his personal story. Who wouldn’t cheer on a stage 4 testicular cancer survivor who then founds a foundation to help raise money for research?

He was like a gift-wrapped role model for our children, who proudly sported their yellow Livestrong bracelets.

And then – thud.

So now what? What can parents say to their kids about Armstrong’s missteps? About cheating, and then lying about cheating. Are there any lessons lurking in this fallen hero’s tumble?

Well, yeah, actually. There is just as much to learn from a cautionary tale as a hero’s epic.

Before, we pointed to Armstrong as evidence that practice makes perfect, hard work pays off and good will is contagious (50 million yellow bracelets and counting).

And today we can point to him as proof that negative behavior brings consequences, too. Because he cheated, Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour titles. Because he lied, he was asked to step down from the foundation he helped create and which partially bears his name. Because he cheated and lied, he lost millions of dollars in corporate sponsorships.

We also can use the Armstrong story arc – or that of any disgraced role model – to remind our kids that all human beings, even super-famous ones, have good and bad qualities. Everybody makes mistakes. The important thing is to apologize and try to learn something from those mistakes, which Armstrong is now doing (albeit belatedly).

Other suggestions:

  • Don’t do all the talking. Listen. Ask your kids what they think of about the role model’s behavior.
  • Role play: Ask your children what they would have done differently in a similar situation. Professional, world-class athletes encounter overwhelming pressure to succeed. Ask your kids what kind of peer pressure they face and how they handle it.
  • Offer some suggestions on positive, healthy ways to handle those kinds of situations.
  • Remind your kids that they don’t have to mimic everything a role model does. It’s important to always be yourself.
  • Talk about what the term “role model” means to them. Ask them to list the qualities that make someone worthy, and unworthy, of being a role model.
  • Help your children find new role models in your community or even in a book. Katniss Everdeen, anyone? Harry Potter? You get the idea.


For further reading on this topic, check out:

Your Teen and Celebrity Role Models, on familyeducation.com Children and Role Models, from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

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