Dr. Wendy Walsh: The movie "Parent Trap" has been a favorite in our home for a decade, maybe only topped by "Herbie Fully Loaded." So when Lindsay Lohan entered our television screens as a convict recently, I had to sit my girls down and do some fast talking.
Fortunately, I had some help. I recently caught up with a gaggle of young, sober, serious and hardworking celebrities who were in town for Fox's Teen Choice Awards, and I asked them about role models -- whether or not they considered themselves to be role models, how that affected their lives and how we can help our kids make sense of role models who make bad choices. And I had my own tween with me to hear the wisdom right from the horses' mouths.
The event was Melanie Segal's Celebrity Retreat, a party benefiting Save the Children and presented by T.J. Maxx in celebration of the Teen Choice Awards. While celebrities decorated items for T.J. Maxx's charity auction and gave test runs of products from companies like Hallmark, Fashion Forms, WATTO, MaxBack and Scholastic Books, I asked for some straight talk about role models.
Most of the group, including Jackson Rathbone ("Twilight"; "The Last Airbender"), said they didn't see themselves as role models (in other words, that's not their goal), but they did admit that it's an inherited responsibility that goes with the territory of celebrity. "I don't like to think of myself as a role model," said Jackson, "but I know once you assume a certain stance in the spotlight, you become naturally a certain role model for certain individuals. One of the things that I always love about art is how it inspires people. And if I can do that for people, that makes me really happy."
A glowing, fresh-faced Hayley Hasselhoff ("Huge") said that being a role model is something she takes seriously, but she was quick to point out that one of her messages to young girls is not to be a copycat. "My biggest thing is, I think that girls should really stay true to themselves, guide their own lives," she said. "I think that you should really lead your own life. And that's the best way to get through all the negativity."
When it comes to explaining to kids about irresponsible celebs whose headshots get replaced by mugshots, an analytical Erin Sanders ("Big Time Rush"; "Zoey 101") said that many young stars enter the business to fulfill their own needs and are surprised when their personal lives become part of the job. The 19-year-old followed up by saying that she's doing her best to be someone her fans can be proud of: She only takes roles in grown-up movies that aren't racy, and she's putting her education right up there with her career in terms of priority. "Even though I'm really busy with work, I'm still going to college part-time, or as much as I can," she said. "Education is really important to me."
When I broached the topic of Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, most of the celebs gave me an eye roll. Jordan Belfi ("Entourage") stressed that being a "good example" is just part of the job of an actor. As for what parents should tell their kids about role models gone bad, he said, "Kids need to know that these are choices that they've made. It doesn't necessarily mean they're a bad person, but these are choices that you don't want to follow. Hopefully kids can learn from that." He also put some of the weight on parents. "I think it always comes down to the relationship you have with your children," he said. "I can't speak as a parent yet, but I had a great relationship with my parents. That's what I can relate it to. Our relationship was open and it was warm and we talked about things, learned from them."
The most fascinating part of my interviews with role models came when I asked who their biggest role models were when they were growing up. I expected to hear the names of athletes and celebrities, but across the board, every actor I spoke with named the same person: their mother! Big guy Quinton Aaron, who starred with Sandra Bullock in "The Blind Side," wasn't one bit shy about gushing over his mom. "My mom was my biggest role model," he said. "Out of everything she went through as far as growing up, a single parent raising me and my knucklehead brother, she's the strongest woman I've ever known. The biggest thing she's ever done for me was raise me into becoming the man I am today." Wow. Go, mom!
Erin Sanders, whose mother holds a Ph.D., echoed Quinton, adding that her mom's constant stressing of education was her biggest gift. Hayley Hasselhoff, daughter of "Baywatch" star David Hasselhoff (who has weathered some storms in his own personal life), says her parents have always inspired her, and that her passion for acting and singing grew from them.
Bottom line: Our kids may be watching their favorite stars closely, but they have an eagle eye when it comes to us.