basektball_volunteerLeadership can be hard to define. You could say it’s the act of guiding or influencing a group of people, but that definition doesn’t quite capture the spirit of what parents mean when they say, “I want my child to grow up to be a leader.” After all, you’ve probably never said, “I’d really like my child to be a follower.” Every parent wants to raise a leader because leadership is code for thriving — confidence, perseverance, success and a general zest for life — and following is code for being uninspired or achieving below your potential. When we think about how to cultivate these qualities in children, it can be helpful to focus on what makes for a strong leader.

Support Independent Thinkers

There are a lot of childcare professionals urging kids to take risks these days, and for good reason — being afraid to fail holds kids back and prevents them from achieving what they’re capable of doing. It can also keep them from encouraging others to do the same. And if things don’t work out as hoped for your kids, having experience failing means they can cope with it. For example, when Daniel Tiger learns to ice skate, he shows kids that it’s okay to fail, or fall in this case, and then get up and try again. Leaders take intellectual risks, as well, and being an independent thinker — and appreciating independent thinking — are important leadership skills.

I recently met a 4th grade girl who was participating in a classroom debate about the death penalty. (Heavy stuff for 4th grade, I know.) She was the only one in her class arguing that it was wrong. She made the case that it was hypocritical — even later that night to her parents, who were pro-death penalty. Fortunately, her parents reinforced her independent spirit by saying, “Hey, I see it differently, but I love how you’re thinking things through and making up your own mind.” This kind of confidence could easily have been undermined by well-intentioned parents who wanted their child to view the world similarly to themselves. Instead they reinforced a more timeless value: independence.

Grow Leadership Skills Over Time

Another popular concept these days is “growth mindset”, which comes from Carol Dweck’s research showing that kids can develop even complex skills like leadership through dedicated practice and hard work. In other words, kids’ skills and abilities are not fixed personality traits. Your children are able to learn and grow to become what they want and to achieve their goals. With this mindset, kids are equipped to take on challenges with confidence, knowing that they don’t have to be good at things right away. A good leader has this kind of patience and self-confidence.

Children can learn to take things one step at a time to achieve growth and reach their goals. These videos from Pet + Cat illustrate just that concept … one step at a time.

A key to being able to influence others is to have some interpersonal savvy. Urge your children to spend time with other kids with no screens involved. Social skills are taught by doing, so have them practice focusing on their friends without electronic distractions, making eye contact, sharing ideas, listening to other kids’ perspectives and showing respect. Being able to truly appreciate others’ strengths, personalities and opinions is a vital part of leadership.

Make It Meaningful

Lastly, encourage your kids to make a contribution and commit to something meaningful to them, like volunteering, participating in a school play, or helping a friend with homework. Another idea is to let your children take the lead in teaching something interesting to the family, maybe something they learned about in school that day. Leaders make an impact on people, and parents can get started shaping this behavior and providing opportunities to demonstrate it when kids are still very young.

About Dr. Jamie Howard

Jamie M. Howard, PhD, is Child Mind Institute's Director of the Stress and Resilience Program; Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center.

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