Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Why Charlie is a better role model than Cheryl for kids to admire

The news that American Beauty auteur Sam Mendes has signed up to direct a theatrical adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory made me cheer this week.

My five-year-old son and I are in the process of hoovering up Roald Dahl's oeuvre, and it keeps occurring to me: no one writes better children's role models than Roald Dahl. Charlie Bucket, Matilda, Sophie in the BFG... they're all knock-outs.

The role model issue is a complex one which carries more baggage than Victoria Beckham on a fortnight's break to Malibu ('No David, that case is for sunglasses! Third Louis Vuitton on the left is for pants!'). It increasingly plagues modern society. Whenever young people go off the rails - even if it's just for an hour or two (in the notorious summer of 2011, you could riot at 2pm and be back to work by 3.30pm) - the cry for role models fills the air as pervasively as the smell of burning tyres.

For some, the answer is easy. Simply instruct your kids to ponder 'What would Jesus do?' they assure us, for a failsafe response to all their moral dilemmas. But much as I approve of the guy's pro-human, anti-Capitalist principles, he just doesn't cover current day ethical minefields. Would Jesus wear an above the knee dress to his under-8s school disco? Assuming his mum could afford a superhero costume would he plump for Batman or Superman?

As soon as my first child was born I started making mental notes about what kind of people I might encourage her to emulate. They had to be likeable, obviously. They had to be cool - otherwise they'd be shunned by my inevitably cutting edge (ahem) offspring. But most of all they had to be deeply, forcefully, heart-burstingly good.

Society likes to pressurise real people to be role models but as any parent who's previously plumped for a Wayne Rooney or a Cheryl Cole will tell you, real people can let you down.

Anyway, it's not fair to ask a real person to become a human sacrifice, to live as a symbolic totem of other people's aspirations, rather than as themselves.

No, what you need is a fictional creation, unerringly reliable and forever unspoiled by human weakness. Children have plenty of time to get greedy, deceitful, cruel and selfish; adulthood comes to us all. But for a few years at the beginning, they're hopeful, trusting, love-filled little sponges, and that's when you need to hit them with heroes who are so magically beguiling they'll never lose their potency. And I realised early on that it would be in books, films and TV shows that I'd find such icons.

Which brings me back to Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Nearly 50 years after it was written, there still aren't many books with a more exemplary character than the perennially brave, cheerful, generous and good-humoured Charlie. As an added bonus, Dahl's novel also gives us four powerful anti-heroes. I can still stop my daughter in her foot-stomping tracks with a sad 'You sound just like Veruca Salt.' Beyond Dahl, I've found 'What would Spongebob do?' works wonders to help my son see the bright side in everything.

Doctor Who works too. A pacifist who preaches tolerance and forgiveness, The Doctor's not unlike Jesus, but scores higher in terms of playground kudos. He's already helped me with the superhero costume. Batman is motivated by revenge, Superman by love. It's a no-brainer. Thanks Doc.

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