The idea that footballers such as David Beckham are role models for young 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, such as friends and family, rather than by actors or sports stars such as Wayne Rooney.
"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 that 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.