An 8-year-old girl sits in my office, sharing her latest plan to get all of the girls in her class to get along and play together at recess. She talks at a rapid pace, her eyes wide with anticipation of my response to her plan. The biggest problem at recess, she tells me, is that the girls run off in different directions in small groups. This leaves some girls left out, and some girls unsure where to go or where they fit in. She’s sure that a “recess sign up plan” will give each girl a chance to find a group that works for her that day. It’s not that the girls argue or have cliques, she explains, it’s that recess is so short that girls don’t have the patience to spend time deciding what to do. It’s an insightful plan coming from such a young girl.
The problem is she lacks the leadership skills to attempt to put her plan into action. “They won’t listen to me,” she tells me. “They will talk over me. I’m not the kind of kid that other kids listen to.” Her eyes are glued to the floor as she utters that final statement. We sit quietly for a moment, as she considers her options. I break the silence with a plan to help her learn to lead. The first step: Practicing the art of assertive communication.
Some kids appear to be natural leaders, but most kids need guidance, practice, and the gift of time to hone these very important skills. The good news is there are simple steps to take at home to help plant the seeds of leadership.
1. Teach communication skills. A big part of being a leader is using clear and assertive communication skills. Leaders build relationships and solve problems. Leaders remain calm under stress and know when to ask for help. A great first step toward raising a leader is teaching your child how to communicate assertively. First, help her understand the differences between passive (afraid to speak up, avoids eye contact, hides in plain sight), aggressive (loud! Imposing! in your face!), and assertive (good eye contact, firm but clear voice, listens with interest) communicators. I often suggest using both role-play and books to understand these communication styles. Once your children understand how to use assertive communication, practice it at home. Hold an election and encourage her to run for some household office — complete with speeches!
2. Encourage them to dream big. Your kid spends a large percentage of his time completing tasks assigned by the adults in his life, both at home and in school, so it’s important to encourage him to find (and follow) his passion during his free time. Support your child as he chases his dreams, be it a lemonade stand to save an endangered animal or enrolling in a theater program to learn to act, and you’ll set him on a path toward leadership.
3. Find positive role models. It’s no big secret that many kids look to athletes and other celebrities as role models to some degree, but I find that local role models have much more to offer. Have a child who loves to bake but time spent in the kitchen isn’t your favorite? Look for a friend or neighbor who might want a little help in the kitchen from time to time. Does your child want to save every animal on the planet? See if a local animal shelter can use a helper. Role models are everywhere. Find someone local who shares your child’s interest and can help her learn the ropes and tap into her strengths.
4. Volunteer together. Serving humanity helps kids see firsthand that they have the power to make a difference in this world. When families volunteer together, they work together to improve the lives of others. That’s a powerful lesson in leading the way toward a better, more empathic, world.
5. Teach conflict resolution. You can’t act as a leader if you don’t know how to manage conflict. We all face conflict and learning to cope with those conflicts in a peaceful way helps build leaders. A great place to start is with sibling squabbles. I often hear that parents should step back and let kids “fight it out”, but I disagree. Yes, you should let your kids attempt to work out their differences at times, but playing mediator can also be useful. Ask your kids to state the problem, in their own words, using “I statements” (which help children to take responsibility for their own actions). Next, have them identify their needs. Third, work together as a team to find a compromise that suits everyone. Sometimes compromise isn’t possible and a break is necessary. That’s okay. Taking a break teaches kids that it’s okay to take time to work through conflict. They don’t have to solve every problem the moment it arises. All great leaders know this to be true.
6. Model perseverance. Leaders don’t quit. They might want to quit at times. They might walk away from a challenge and take a relaxation break from time, but they do know how to persevere and work through challenges. I encourage my kids to follow these steps when they encounter a challenge that makes them want to give up:
- Regroup: Take a break and relax for a while.
- Reframe: View that obstacle as a speed bump instead of a wall.
- Retry: We don’t always get it right on the first try, but we can always try again.
7. Encourage teamwork. I recently attempted to describe the team of people who help the President on a daily basis. My kids were in awe of the amount of people working behind the scenes. Part of leadership is being a team player and being a team leader. All too often kids are taught to stand out and be the best, but this sends the message that the individual is greater than the team. Teach your kids about the power of teamwork. When kids learn to support others, cooperate, and problem solve as a group, they become better leaders.
8. Hone decision-making skills. A mom recently asked me why it’s so hard for her son to make decisions. She described him as kind, thoughtful, and bright, but terrible at making choices. When I asked her how often he gets to make decisions, I was met with a blank stare. The best way to hone decision-making skills is to practice making decisions! Give your kids the power of choice by letting him decide what to wear, how he likes his hair, and which notebooks to buy for school. So much of life is scripted for kids. If we fail to present them with options, they never learn to choose.
All young children have the potential to become great leaders as they grow. If we support their interests and teach them how to negotiate group dynamics and other social settings, they will learn to navigate tough decisions and resolve conflict with ease. All we have to do is believe in their abilities to make positive changes in this world.