The idea that footballers such as Wayne Rooney and David Beckham are role models for children is a myth, according to new research.
Dr Simon Brownhill, education expert at the University of Derby, said children aged eight or below were unable to grasp the concept of what a role model is until they are older.
Dr Brownhill surveyed 178 men who work in nursery and primary school settings to see if they saw themselves as role models for children. But he found respondents could not give clear meaning to the term "role model", giving instead many differing definitions.
In his research, entitled "The 'brave' man in the early years (0-8): the ambiguities of being a role model", Dr Brownhill found respondents felt both teachers and parents set more of an example for youngsters than sports stars and celebrities.
Dr Brownhill, a senior lecturer on the Foundation Degree Children's and Young People's Services (Pathway), said: "The results from this study suggest that children aged eight or younger are still finding their feet in the world and do not have a clear understanding of what a role model is.
"The men surveyed in the study, who work with young children every day, supported the idea that children are more likely to be influenced by people who are their own age, who share the same experiences and who live close by. A friend who, for example, shows no fear when going on a fairground ride is more likely to be a role model for a youngster."
Dr Brownhill said men are not automatically role models to children if they work in early-years settings, because the status has to be earned. And in some cases role models can have a negative impact on children's lives, he said.
While initial definitions perceived role models as having a positive influence on others, one participant said: "A role model is like an example, so it could be a good or bad role model."
An example he gave was footballers being regarded as bad role models due to them swearing, in Wayne Rooney's case, or kicking other players, perceived as a fault of David Beckham.
Dr Brownhill added: "This study highlights that while there is a shared notion that the role model will emulate positive qualities and characteristics of both a personal and professional nature, the idea of the role model being 'a man' is challenged. Instead, it is argued that both men and women can be role models to children of both genders, not just boys."