When we envision the ideal character traits we hope our children will embody, being a follower is never high on that list. We imagine that our children will stomp out peer pressure with a swift declaration of “NO!” without blindly following the crowd. When things get tough, we hope that our children will have the mental fortitude to take a stand against negativity and avoid making bad decisions.
But the reality is that our children do often succumb to the pressures of “fitting in” and assimilating with classmates and peers. And, developmentally speaking, this is actually appropriate. According to the stages of psychosocial development, up until the age of about 20 years old, our children are still working to master complex tasks such as developing trust, becoming autonomous, learning to take initiative, and finding a healthy identity. For these reasons, it’s easy to see how our children can get swept up in the tide of following others and forget who they are.
Still, as daunting as it may feel as a parent attempting to help your child develop his full leadership qualities, all hope is not lost. Here are five ways you can help your child develop a healthy identity, avoid following the crowd and become a real leader!
Discuss and Explore Values At Home
Our children’s first foray into independent thought actually starts at home. They begin to use their voice when it’s time to go to bed, as well as when deciding what to wear and what they will (or won’t) eat! You may think that having these battles with your child is a pain—and you’re not wrong about that—but they lay the foundation for how your child identifies his ideas and learns to voice them. Sharon Martin, LCSW, a psychotherapist in private practice in San Jose, CA, shares that you can “talk to you child about what they believe in and why”—even when it comes to minor decisions about their preferences. Martin adds, “If your child is clear on what s/he believes, s/he will have an easier time communicating and standing up for his/her beliefs outside the home.”
Encourage Role Playing
When it comes to child development, parents can be a great guide for kids as they learn how to assert themselves. A strategy that I often use in my work with families is role playing. When we role play, it accomplished two things: It allows adults to see into their minds and help guide them in healthy ways, and it allows them a safe space to explore their ideas. Martin adds that you can “practice self-advocacy and assertiveness with your child in the safety of your own home” because “these are skills that can be learned.” The interesting thing about role playing is that we learn best when we feel like we can be ourselves. When done effectively, psychotherapist John Sovec, who practices in Pasadena, CA, further notes that kids will “learn to follow their gut and explore areas that are of interest to them rather than just following the crowd.” To begin using role play in your home—and to get your kids to actually try it out—ask them to share stories from their day where they felt they could have made a different decision.
Don’t Push Them Beyond Their Comfort Zone
One major influence on developing leadership qualities lies in being self-aware and staying authentic to that truth. As an example, if we push our child to speak up when they are shy, she might retreat into a follower role just to avoid using their voice. It’s important to get to know your child’s communication style and encourage her to use her language and her unique communication style to get her point across—no necessarily they style you, your spouse or her siblings would use.
We can help stimulate this self-awareness in our children by honoring their strengths and helping them to acknowledge their weaknesses. Sovec also notes that you can “help your kids define their own sense of style and individuality so that they do not feel the pressure to always seek out the latest and greatest.” The combo of knowing themselves and being able to use their own unique voice will encourage them to take the lead more and not to shy away from assertiveness.
Model What It Looks Like To Lead
Not all leaders are perfect and without fault, and we sometimes want our children to think for themselves without acknowledging the struggles that may accompany that independence. Martin states that we can let our children fail and “allow them to make mistakes and problem solve solutions.” Through this process, our children will inevitably learn that, sometimes, thinking for themselves will lead to hardship and failure. But it’s in those moments of trial and error that they develop the leadership qualities that we desire for them. We can also model how it looks when we lead so they see what that learning process looks like in real life. Having actual examples of what leadership looks like can also help manage unrealistic expectations. “Make a point of telling your child about the meeting you led at work or the fundraiser your spearheaded at their school,” Martin explains.
Entertain Their Crazy Ideas
If there’s one thing we can expect from our children, it’s an endless supply of wacky ideas. From trying to negotiate a new bedtime to seeking our attention to show us a new trick, our children’s uniqueness and creativity will always shine through. And no matter how inconvenient or annoying, that’s something you want to keep inspiring in them. Great leaders often have ideas that seem impossible in the beginning but eventually lead to great things in the end. “Kids can have amazing, outrageous ideas, and sometimes the adults around them will dismiss those ideas,” says Sovec. Instead, he suggests we help our children define who they are as a leader by talking with them and exploring how they could implement their idea, or modify it to be even more powerful.
Essentially, we all want our children to be able to assert themselves and speak up for what’s right without being lead astray by others. While this can be a difficult task, we can use the strategies above to set a healthy foundation for our future leaders.
Mercedes Samudio, LCSW, is a parent coach who has been working with families for years helping them achieve results in developing dynamic parent/child relationships, ending the shame around parenting and giving parents the confidence to raise healthy children in today’s world. She is a leading parenting expert certified in nonviolent parenting and attachment parenting who received her Master’s in Social Work from the University of Southern California and Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from UCLA.
Mercedes believes that all parents need support to develop their parenting skill set. You can read more about her parenting expertise at http://theparentingskill.com.