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What Do You Say to Your Kids When Their Idol Goes Astray?

I just spent time with some middle school students, after an assembly. I’d spoken on the topic of how we must develop character to be trusted by others in life. The young teens I spoke with afterward were visibly confused. I could see it in their faces. I had given them a new “compass” and it didn’t fit their worldview.

The conversation was about the celebrities they follow, who’d exhibited “poor character” decisions. May I give you some examples?

* Johnny Manziel, quarterback from Texas A and M, had just been tossed out of a game because he couldn’t manage his emotions or his mouth. He’s been accused of signing autographs for money and he’s not handling the bad press very well. He was penalized in the game and may be penalized beyond that.

* My guess is—you heard about or even watched Miley Cyrus dance on the VMA’s. This Disney diva has now gone to another extreme, attempting so hard to be Lady Gaga, or Madonna. She obviously wants to strip off the Disney “nice girl” image, but when we saw her bump and grind on stage, it made most us feel sorry for her.

* Justin Bieber has been accused of smoking marijuana or using illegal drugs after posting a video on Instragram. He’s giggling like he’s drunk and can’t complete a paragraph. Why is it when new technology comes out, it happens on a day when a young celebrity is not fit to record?

* Lindsay Lohan is back in the news, sober this time, after spending time in jail. She confessed to addictive behavior on an Oprah interview. Drugs and alcohol make us behave badly. We all fell in love with this young actress in “The Parent Trap” fifteen years ago in 1998. Today, she is attempting to get control of her life again.

* Three years ago, we all heard about Tiger Woods’ multiple affairs with women. He was a married man, but decided he could live above the rules—as a lifestyle—and do whatever he wanted. He even said so. It’s been a while since his confession and he’s still trying to get his game back.

What Do You Say to Your Kids When Their Idol Goes Astray

As I listened to those young teens talk about these celebrities or “idols” I realized they needed help interpreting what was going on. They loved the talent in each of those idols, but were now seeing the “underbelly” of their lifestyle. Here’s what I said that might be helpful as you discuss this topic with kids:

1. We must separate the gift from the person.

This was the most helpful insight. We must always maintain the ability to separate a performer’s gift from their person. By this I mean, we can enjoy watching their gift for music or throwing a ball—without buying into it all; making them an “idol.”

2. We must develop a moral compass that enables us to evaluate conduct.

It’s key to keep our priorities straight. Most fallen celebrities failed to do this. They got caught up in the fame and fortune, and lost their way. Students must decide what their values are and not swerve from them as they watch others gain notoriety.

3. We can learn from their strengths, but not emulate their life.

I try to always appreciate and admire the strengths of others—and learn every lesson I can from how they leveraged it. However, this does not mean I imitate that person in other areas. We can learn something from any person if we try.

4. We must find mentors who can help us mature in well-rounded ways.

Especially when we’re prone to worship a celebrity, we must find mentors, older veterans who can help us as we grow, to provide perspective to us. Mentors can give us wisdom to think straight when everyone else is swooning over a fad.

5. We must remember that money can’t buy love or happiness.

Most of the celebrities who’ve gone astray would admit that they misplace a value they once embraced and now looked to money (or some other cosmetic tool) to furnish what they wanted. You cannot buy stuff that really matters in life.

6. We can celebrate their talent without endorsing their lifestyle.

I hope I never stop celebrating the talented people I meet. However, as I mentioned before, we must separate that from an endorsement of the lives of those people. This is why I can read books from authors I don’t agree with, or listen to speakers whose style I don’t completely appreciate. The key: eat the fish and spit out the bones.

I hope this sparks some of your own insights as you converse with students.

photo credit: Keith Allison via photopin cc


  1. Timothy Lynn Burchfield on September 13, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Talent is cheap without character.

    • Tim Elmore on September 13, 2013 at 2:09 pm

      In our Habitudes Leadership Program, we equate this to the Iceberg principle – 10% is what you see on the outside like skills and talents, while 90% lie on inside (or underneath the water) like character. The 90% is what sinks ships and wrecks lives.

  2. Annie Riley on September 13, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Its true, we idolize people way to much and sometime in a very unhealthy way. Ultimatly the only person we should Idolize should be the Lord our God because he will never be a bad example. The article is right we can admire the tallent and enjoy watching or listening to it; however we should by no means have our life reflect the bad decisions that they make. In my perspective a person with talent and doesnt use it in a way to be uplifting and glorifying, is a person that is all talk and they are without character.

  3. Timothy Lynn Burchfield on September 13, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Same Iceberg that we use at Chick-fil-A when we teach SERVE Leadership?
    BTW, I am sending four leaders to your LifeShape Seminar on SERVE in October.

    • Tim Elmore on September 16, 2013 at 1:07 pm

      Timothy, I would say that the Iceberg Habitude is similar to the E-Embody Others of the SERVE Leadership Model. It revolves around character, which I believe is one of the core fundamentals of being a great leader.

  4. Lauro de la Garza on September 14, 2013 at 9:27 am

    Thank you Tim. Very insightful and relevant. Today kids are pressed to be number one no matter what. They idolize artists and athletes regardless of their character. Sharing Habitudes with my teenage daughter has helped her see that one should never compromise integrity.

    • Tim Elmore on September 16, 2013 at 1:17 pm

      Thank you for sharing your experience! It can be discouraging to idolize a celebrity and then witness them going astray. It is so important to cling to the morals and values that shape one’s character. Thanks for leading your kids to think this way!

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What Do You Say to Your Kids When Their Idol Goes Astray?