Parenting

Raising Little Leaders: Leadership Skills You Can Start With Your Child Right Now

written by KATHERINE BALLESTA-ROSEN
leadership skills in kids"
leadership skills in kids
Source: occasionally_perfect
Source: occasionally_perfect

Every child has the capacity to be a great leader. And the latest generation of Gen Alpha kids (and soon to be Gen Beta!) is poised for leadership potential: effective emotional intelligence, reliable intuition, a colorful imagination, and more! Today’s parents are invested in building these skills for their kids and, in doing so, paving their road to leadership. 

And that’s just a taste of the ingredients that form and characterize admired leaders today. Gone are the days of boxing a leader into a traditional “boss” persona—someone who is outgoing, takes charge, directs others, and puts their emotions aside to go full steam ahead. The definition of an effective leader has officially evolved. It’s up to us to catch up. That way, we can ensure we’re raising kids to be able to recognize and tap into the widened spectrum of leadership ability. 

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to challenge any and every child’s notion that they “can’t” be a leader? Especially if they’re in doubt because they don’t have quality x or y? By having a full picture of what actually encompasses being a leader in childhood, you can! Couple that with how you can help them be one that fits their personality and inclinations—even better. We’ve spoken to an expert and are here to share what defines today’s little (and someday adult) leaders, as well as leadership skills to teach kids so they flex their potential to be one.

What makes a child a good leader?

First and foremost, it’s important to frame positive and influential young leaders in the context of small, everyday ways rather than trying to raise the next president, Taylor Swift, or Harvard magna cum laude. Every child can be a “good” leader in their own way. We interviewed Rachel Tomlinson, who has spent her entire professional career gaining experience in child development and mental health fields. She has an extensive understanding of what it means for a child to be a successful leader.   

Meet the Expert

Rachel Tomlinson, Registered Psychologist

Rachel Tomlinson is the owner of Toward Wellbeing and the internationally published author of A Blue Kind of Day. With a focus on parenting, mental health, and child development and well-being, Rachel provides workshops, 1:1 consultations, speaking events, and more.

“For this generation’s children, it means being able to guide their peers in a positive way,” said Tomlinson. She continued, “That’s by setting a good example or inspiring others with their actions, thoughts, or opinions. It involves qualities like empathy, compassion, accountability, and being a good communicator.”

As you can see, a child’s capability to lead encompasses a broad set of skills. What’s more, these are skills parents often hope their kids will acquire regardless of whether they’re trying to consciously raise them to be leaders or not.

Nature vs. nurture

“It’s important to understand that some children are born with natural leadership qualities. Others are nurtured and supported to develop these skills,” Tomlinson advised parents. It’s totally normal to see that your child shows encouraging signs of being a leader—or not. Either way, it’s worth remembering that the nurturing side of things can go a long way. How you introduce and/or sharpen those above-mentioned skills counts. Not only are those skills diverse, meaning that any number of them can be acquired by anybody, but children—as impressionable as they are—are in a position to more easily take them on.     

Tomlinson pointed out that Gen Alpha kids have a special context shaping our collective understanding of being a leader today. She noted, “It’s not so much a shift in skills as a shift in perspective. This developing generation are more digitally literate, are far more aware of what’s happening in the world around them, and are more sensitive to global issues.” In other words, we’re likely going to be hard-pressed to find a Gen Alpha leader who isn’t tech-savvy and clued into the greater social impact and activism around what they care about.      

That being said, a leader is still a leader. As Tomlinson clarified, “Ultimately, leadership comes down to natural abilities or individual differences and the environment in which a child is raised.” 

leadership skills to teach kids
Source: @daniellerbevens

When do children recognize what it means to be a leader?        

In the midst of a toddler’s games of make-believe, tantrums, and insatiable curiosity, it just so happens that they’re picking up on the idea of leadership, too. Tomlinson explained, “There are some key developmental stages where children want to be in charge of things, or direct play and the people around them… but to actually understand what it means to be a leader, in terms of responsibility or pressure, that can start from the age of 3 to 4.”

Curious how you can start honing that inkling of leadership with your little one? We get to that below! 

Why leadership skills are important in childhood

Whether it’s at the personal, family, school, or community level, the advantages of showing up as a leader in some way, shape, or form are clear. If we’re hoping to have a hand in the evolving impression of who gets to be a leader, we have to be explicit with kids about why leadership skills are valuable. It’s easy to assume it’s important without really thinking about the deeper implications of why. Possessing the qualities of a leader invites present and future success, and it doesn’t matter if you radiate them as an extrovert or do so quietly as an introvert.

Tomlinson emphasized, “Leadership skills such as communication, problem-solving, negotiation, teamwork, and being able to delay instant gratification for a joint or future goal all support children to achieve academically, discover positive and reciprocal relationships, and have greater well-being overall.” Beyond that, “When children see the positive impact they have on the people around them and their wider community (in their role as leaders), it can instill them with a sense of self-esteem, self-efficacy, and foster a sense of responsibility and pride.” Plus, add in the fact that growing into a leader helps build resilience for navigating life’s challenges—a crucial skill.

How to teach kids leadership skills

You have to know how to be a leader in order to reap its benefits. Leadership skills to teach kids start with us as parents. When you’re a child, it’s your parents, guardians, teachers, coaches, etc. who help intentionally illuminate how to actually be one. Tomlinson expressed this means “… supporting and helping kids develop emotional intelligence, effective communication skills, independence, a growth mindset, and problem-solving skills.” Sometimes, these milestones are easier said than done. That’s why we wanted to translate them into everyday leadership skills you can start doing with your child right now.   

Play follow the leader

Try a twist on the traditional game little kids often play. Although that version offers chances to fulfill a leadership role, you’re usually only leading basic actions or movements for others to mimic. For more depth, begin as the designated leader yourself. Rather than having your child follow what movements you do, have them follow your leadership-inspired gestures instead. As Tomlinson highlighted, it’s beneficial for parents to “… help set up opportunities for their child to step into a leadership role, or see them (the parent) demonstrate effective and positive leadership skills.”

For example, perhaps you’re hoping to help your child work on skills like positive communication and empathy. You could call up one of your friends and show your child what a sincere connection looks like (even if you wind up having to leave a voicemail). Then, give them a chance to “follow” by calling up a family member or friend. Meanwhile, let’s say you’re trying to strengthen problem-solving skills. You could select a hands-on project you know will be a little beyond their age level. Based on how you lead them in tackling it, they’ll be able to learn how to take new approaches and seek solutions themselves.    

This will all be age-dependent and take some creative forethought, of course. Ultimately, it can be rewarding to figure out how to conscientiously model being a leader yourself as well. Once your child gets the hang of it, you can also swap roles, making them the leader while you follow. 

Develop an accountability matrix

Tomlinson shared that accountability is a key leadership trait. To have them practice it, give your child things to be personally responsible for. And hey, if you were looking for a good excuse for them to start doing age-appropriate chores, this is it! You could assign them specific household duties or set them up to contribute to running the household (i.e., helping with meal plans, adding items to your weekly shopping list when they’re running low, etc.). Accountability can also involve tasking your child to be accountable for looking after certain belongings. 

To help them internalize it better, you can help your kiddo organize what they’re accountable for by mapping out a matrix together (i.e., on a whiteboard, chore chart, or in a kid-friendly planner). Depending on how it’s going, what seems developmentally appropriate, etc., you can adapt any agreed-upon expectations as you go. As they demonstrate success, it’s definitely worth rewarding them in whatever way feels reasonable. That way, hopefully, they continue to feel motivated to seek out opportunities to take accountability in their world—whether they “have” to or not.    

Role-play communication skills

At this point in your life, you probably have a pretty good handle on what can make for meaningful communication. So, depending on the day, mood, or serendipitous teachable moment, turn it into an easy game of role-play. Pick a communication skill you find valuable and then help your child learn how to bring it to life.   

There are tons of ways you can start thoughtful conversations with your child. Try adding a touch of healthy communication practice at the same time. You could practice how to validate feelings, make consistent eye contact, or express opinions confidently without sounding like a know-it-all. Or, if you’d like to get them comfortable adapting their communication style to different audiences or situations, you could pretend to be a friend, teacher, store worker, etc. Alternatively, for practice with being an active listener, you can verify you’re each paying attention to what the other is saying by deliberately building on points or ideas one of you initially shares. 

leadership skills to teach kids
Source: @tinygirlgang

Set family goals

You can’t be a leader without being a team player. Sure, your child might be getting teamwork practice at school or in an extracurricular activity. Still, you can really have its value hit home by, well, bringing it home. Gather as a family and decide upon a goal or two you’d like to accomplish. Is it planning your next vacation? Constructing something that will be useful around the house? Reading a certain number of chapter books together? Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables? 

While selecting exciting and achievable goals matters for the buy-in, what matters more is the process of accomplishing them. Tomlinson described the leadership objective as “… helping your child understand what’s required when working in a team—collaboration, cooperation, and being able to consider others.” Get ready, because, once this is in motion, chances are your kiddo will be brimming with sky-high goals for the fam. 

Give your child a say

It’s only natural to want to help your child out as much as you possibly can. This is particularly the case when you know you’ll be able to do so faster and/or with more ease. In fact, sometimes we even have a tendency to parent our partners for the same reasons. However, “Don’t do too much for your children. Give them (appropriate and safe) opportunities to make decisions or have a say,” Tomlinson suggested. 

Empowering your child with moments of (relatively) important decision-making is for their own benefit. Tomlinson said this helps them grow accustomed to weighing options, considering pros and cons, and understanding consequences. All of these are higher-order cognitive abilities that leaders are comfortable undertaking. 

Obviously, you’re not going to let your child make your family’s next major financial decision, but you can surprise them with a say in something new that’s a big deal from their POV. Have they ever helped decide what’s on the breakfast, lunch, or dinner menus? Have they been able to help decide how you decorate your home? Additionally, you could try asking them if they’d like to establish (or modify) any new house rules or if there is a new extracurricular activity they’d like to explore. Basically, you can present anything that will truly get them exercising their prefrontal cortex.   

Even toddlers can have a say in decision-making. Since toddlers typically gravitate toward wanting to have a sense of control anyway, why not harness it? For example, let them feed themselves or choose their outfit, even if they’ll make messes or their clothes won’t match. Or, perhaps they have their own preferred way of packing up their toys—let them do it their way. Essentially, is there any slack you can offer your toddler where you might normally act on their behalf? Bonus, Tomlinson mentioned this can reduce tantrums since wanting things on their terms can often be what triggers one. 

Share positive reinforcement

You don’t have to limit your focus to being the one who sparks leadership opportunities. You can also celebrate when your child shows emerging leadership skills through their own volition. Any time you notice that they’ve acted in the way a leader would, point it out and cheer them on. Take it further by talking to them about what you’re seeing—are they even aware they’re being a leader? Remember, from authenticity to mindful listening, leadership can be expressed in many subtle ways. By naming and praising it, you’re offering your child added awareness and incentive to embrace leadership’s vast constellation of skills.     

At the end of the day, “It’s important to understand that not all children want to become or feel comfortable in leadership positions. Take your child’s lead on this one (pun fully intended),” Tomlinson encouraged. It’s entirely possible most kids do have leadership potential living inside of them in one way or another. In that case, the fun is seeing when and how it will shine! 

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