“Mom, I saw some people asking for money by the off ramp. They didn’t have any coats and it’s pretty cold outside. We need to do something to help them out.”
As a parent listening to my child’s desire to make a difference, I had a choice to make. I could minimize his concern and redirect his attention to something else, or I could acknowledge the problem and encourage him to act on his sense of ethical responsibility. I chose to see the situation as an opportunity to learn about leading for change as we worked together to find coats for some of those who are homeless in our city.
Educator Livia Chan talks about the importance of giving children the gift of leadership. She notes that leadership involves a set of learned skills and cultivated personal qualities, such as good communication, integrity, gratitude, resilience, imagination, empathy, and perseverance. Parents and caregivers can encourage children to build these skills and develop these qualities by facilitating meaningful projects that kids lead.
We begin by seeing leadership potential in children. This means we take our list of leadership qualities and begin to notice ways in which our kids demonstrate those qualities. Are they good at showing appreciation when others provide assistance? That’s gratitude. Do they stick with a task even when it’s a struggle? That’s perseverance. By acknowledging these leadership qualities, we help children embrace the idea that they can lead.
Next, we tell our kids that we believe in them. We believe that they can make a difference. We believe that they can take the lead in solving community problems. Our belief helps to instill confidence and lets them know that we will back their efforts as they grow as leaders.
We also nurture leadership qualities. We express empathy for others and encourage children to do the same. We model conversations that demonstrate good communication skills. We create a culture of gratitude at home, where thankfulness is not just something that happens over turkey and cranberry sauce. And we continue to tell our kids when we see them using leadership skills in everyday interactions.
We explicitly teach about leadership as well. One way is to read about historical leaders and reflect together on the qualities they possessed. Another is to visit with leaders in our communities and ask them about the skills and aptitudes they believe help them to lead. We can also ask children to think about the kind of leader they want to be or observe the actions of others around us and wonder, “Is that how a leader would behave?”
Lastly, we need to provide children with opportunities to lead. When they see a problem, encourage them to brainstorm ways to solve the problem with others’ help. Then ask: How could you put together a plan to respond and get others on board? Then be available to provide feedback and support as they identify steps, recruit helpers, and implement their response.