01/19/2013 08:48 am ET Updated Mar 21, 2013

Modern Heroes for Boys

When we talk to boys about role models, it's important to emphasize to them that no one is perfect. While good role models should possess qualities that are admirable -- courage, tenacity, kindness, achievement -- they're also meant to be examples for real life. And real people, as we all know, are complicated and flawed.

This is one reason many public figures resist the title of role model. (As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "Show me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy.") Charles Barkley famously said that he's "not paid to be a role model," and didn't want to be looked to as such. "I'm not going to be everything to everyone," singer Katy Perry, who has millions of young fans, has said. "I can't tell a person when it's time for them to have sex. Or if they should have a cigarette." Which is why important for parents to talk to kids about what it means to emulate someone, and that it may be appropriate to pick and choose different qualities from different people.

Boys in particular often look to sports heroes as role models, and it can be easy to see why: they excel in a way that most boys are familiar with and can understand. But it's key to encourage boys to look to other, perhaps less conventional role models for examples of how they might want to live and grow. To encourage them to understand how the tools someone uses to achieve a goal are often more important than achieving the goal itself. And to embrace more than one idea of what it means to be exceptional. Because when it comes to heroes, a kid can never have too many. Some ideas:

Creativity. Alexander Wang. At 28, Wang was named creative director of Balenciaga, one of the most storied fashion houses in history, after more than a decade of hard work, perseverance, and never accepting the notion that he was "too young."

Versatility. Michael Strahan. He's a former NFL hero, sure. But in his second career as a daytime talk show co-host -- as the funny, down-to-earth sidekick to Kelly Ripa -- Strahan is proof that boys can dream big in more ways than one.

Courage. Zach Wahls. At 19, Wahls -- who was raised by two moms, and often bullied for it -- spoke before the Iowa legislature on behalf of gay marriage, as seen in a video that went viral and took his message to millions around the world. He is now one of the country's youngest gay rights activists.

Integrity. Anderson Cooper. The Emmy Award-winning journalist, known for reporting from some of the most dangerous places in the world, announced he's gay with an openness and honesty -- but not before he was ready.

Self-confidence. Rico Rodriguez. The 14-year-old Modern Family star doesn't look like most teen heartthrobs, and he's perfectly okay with that, as he writes in his book, Reel Life Lessons... So Far.

Conviction. Barack Obama. Regardless of your politics, Obama -- raised by a single mom to become a Nobel Peace Prize winner and two-term U.S. president -- has helped encourage a world less divided by race.

Humility. Usain Bolt. Widely regarded as the world's fastest man, Jamaican-born Bolt is well known as a guy who doesn't take himself too seriously. But when the time comes to work, he works. "No matter how good you are," he's said, "there is always room for improvement."

Big heartedness. Charlie Simpson. At 7, Simpson decided he'd bike around his neighborhood park to raise money for victims of the earthquake in Haiti. His initiative so inspired his community that the donations flooded in -- and eventually totaled more than $240,000.

Tenacity. Christopher Paolini. The author of the best-selling Eragon series began writing when he was 15. But he wasn't just born inspired: He spent three years writing the first draft.

Equanimity. Katniss Everdeen. The ultimate underdog hero, the star of the Hunger Games series is selfless, values kindness and hard work, and never backs down. And because role models for boys needn't be exclusively male.