Our role to play

“How important it is for us to recognise our heroes and she-roes!” 

Ger Graus looks at the role models we all look up to and asks how Maya Angelou’s ‘heroes and she-roes’ affect the changing aspirations of young people.

Role models in 2017

Maya Angelou [1] asks one of the questions for 2020. According to a survey of 1,000 children in 2017, more than three quarters of children aged 6 to 17 aspired to be YouTubers, vloggers and bloggers. The research by travel firm First Choice revealed that 34 per cent of children would like to be a YouTube personality, while one in five wished to start their own channel.  Traditional career choices, such as teaching, were much less popular three years ago. The research also revealed that children would rather learn how to use video editing software instead of studying traditional subjects such as maths and history.

From an evolutionary point of view, it is no surprise that YouTube stars have become celebrities to young audiences and the contents produced by these stars are fervently consumed and have a powerful hold over them. This will be a familiar battleground to many parents pushing back against the pull of these influencers, even testing the boundaries of millennial parents who themselves have grown up in the digital age.

The impact of Covid-19 on children’s perception

According to new research by Kids Insights[2], there appears, however, to have been a seismic shift in children’s occupational aspirations over the past few months with scientists, teachers, supermarket workers, doctors and nurses now the new superheroes of the COVID-19 generation. A return to the type of role modelling that is perhaps about to once again change the dynamics of career aspirations and educational priorities? Perhaps.

The first observation needs to be that this is nothing new. Role models come into young people’s lives in a variety of ways. They are educators, leaders, mothers, fathers, peers and ordinary people encountered in everyday life. In my case they ranged from Robin Hood, his bravery and sense of fairness, to Johan Cruijff’s turn and ability to orchestrate a team, to wanting to be able to speak like Dr Martin Luther King, be a doctor like Christiaan Barnard, teach like Mr Beurskens, and actually be my grandad. I was ten.

What makes an aspirational role model?

There are, I believe, at least five criteria required to elevate a person or profession to role model status in the eyes of a child.

  1. Role models demonstrate passion for what they do and have the capacity to infect others with it. They are often good at what they do.
  2. Role models shows a clear set of values and live them in their world. They lead by example. Children admire people who act in ways that support their beliefs. It helps them understand how their own values are part of who they are and how they might seek fulfilling roles as adults. Role models make good things happen.
  3. A role model shows commitment to community. They are others-focusedas opposed to self-focused and are usually (pro)active in their communities, freely giving of their time and talents to benefit people.
  4. Role models shows selflessness and acceptance of others who are different to them. They are fair.
  5. A role model shows the ability to overcome obstacles. Young people develop the skills and abilities of initiative when they learn to overcome obstacles.  Not surprisingly, they admire people who show them that success is possible.

Of course, the reign of the YouTuber or vlogger per se was always going to be flawed as a framework of aspirational longevity, like so many others in the past.  Despite YouTube celebrities being influential in shaping trends and guiding pop culture, not all by any means really fit the role modelling matrix in the first place, showing young people how to live with integrity, optimism, hope, determination, and compassion; in turn, helping develop the skills, abilities, and motivation to become engaged citizens. Like so many in the past. I was lucky. I choose well. Robin Hood, Johan Cruijff, Dr Martin Luther King and Christiaan Barnard all passed the test of time, as did, of course, Mr Beurskens and my grandad – for me anyway.

What children aspire to

My mantra has always been that “Children can only aspire to what they know exists” and over the past few months, they have not only witnessed the existence but have vicariously experienced the value of rewarding jobs and careers. It is vitally important that we, now more than ever, continue to inspire and educate our global citizens of the future. This, as adults, surely is our role to play! We need to facilitate the experiences that lead to the discovery of positive role models and from that to role play, i.e. copied behaviour. We need to show the environment is the third teacher, including the environment of imagination, aspiration and role models – a modern day Sherwood Forrest, De Meer stadium, De Groote Schuur hospital and a new Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Only then do these experiences and does this learning become visible.


Professor Dr Ger Graus OBE is the first Global Director of Education at KidZania. Before this, in 2007, he became the founding Chief Executive of the Children’s University. After growing up in the Netherlands, he came to the UK as a teacher in 1983 and has not looked back since.




[1] Maya Angelou

[2] https://kidsinsights.com/ac/


FEATURE IMAGE: by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

FURTHER READING: BBC Culture: Is the age of the celebrity over?