Dear Dr. Debbie,
How can I encourage my child to exercise his leadership skills without being “bossy” or being insensitive to others’ needs or wishes? According to his teachers, he generally doesn’t take the lead in social situations, and here at home, my wife and I are constantly intervening in squabbles between him and his younger brother. We’re moving this summer, so it’ll not only be a new neighborhood, but a whole new group at school as well. Is leadership something his new teacher can work on, or does it come from how we treat him at home?
— Dad on the Sidelines
Don’t miss last week’s column How to parent a young introvert when you’re an extrovert — Good Parenting
Nobody likes a bossy boss, but people want to be well-led. Bad leadership uses intimidation and incites rebellion while good leadership takes us willingly where we want or need to go.
Leadership behaviors are partly inborn, although adults can influence skills that can be learned in childhood (including not being bossy) and can control certain situational conditions.
Born and Bred Leadership Characteristics
There are personality components to good leadership that are as natural as breathing for some children but can be brought out in others. These are charisma, social sensitivity, creativity and confidence. Parents, teachers and other caregivers can influence these factors if you start promoting them early.
Charisma, or charm, is reinforced by smiling back and cooing back to a baby. Toddlers and preschoolers are constantly trying to engage the attention of others with their antics and attempts at conversation. Positive attention is how adults can promote the idea that pleasing others is inherently pleasing.
Social sensitivity is another trait that can be bolstered with adult attention to helping a child feel successful in being aware of and compassionately responsive to the needs of others. Feedback such as, “That made your brother so happy!” or “Mom looks disappointed about that decision. Let’s see what might work better for her” are examples. Adult models of compassion are the best predictor of children’s behavior that is not bossy or manipulative.
Creativity is brought out through open-ended conversations, make-believe play and scientific problem solving. “What do you think …? is a great way to promote ingenuity, which is often what we need leaders for. An open-ended question has no wrong answers, therefore there’s no fear of failure. Which brings us to confidence.
Confidence is equivalent to positive self-esteem, which parents and other caregivers support with unconditional positive regard, responsive caregiving and encouragement in the face of challenges. It helps if caregivers have a good idea of developmental stages so that challenges are age-appropriate. For example, a 1-year-old will feel challenged by climbing a whole staircase. A 4-year-old should be ready to jump from the third step and land safely with knees bent. An 8-year-old will work through the challenge of building a miniature staircase for his Lego construction.
Situational leadership, on the other hand, is a matter of who else is in the group. Depending on how wide a pool there is to choose from, children generally settle into social groups that include one good leader and a small handful of followers.
You will be helping your son find his handful in the new neighborhood — at the playground or other gathering places for kids. Follow up with his teacher as the school year progresses to see who may have similar interests and personalities that gel with his. Start with inviting one friend over at a time, then build up to the whole pod. If the group dynamics are working, they’ll naturally work together as leader and followers.
Here are some other ways a leader may find his way to the top, based on the situation or group.
Height advantage gives the child who is even slightly taller an advantage in being able to steer the direction of others. Psychologically, it seems, humans feel more secure under the leadership of someone taller. (In all presidential races in the U.S. since 1900, the taller of the candidates has won 75 percent of the time!)
Language skills empower children to use verbal tools to steer the behavior of others. Young children will follow the directions of a child even just a few months older due to his or her slightly advanced speech. Enhance your son’s language skills by reading aloud to him and engaging in conversation.
Specific expertise brings natural respect to the child who excels in bike riding, math, music or insect knowledge. Peers will “look up to” the child with impressive skills and or intelligence and ask for help or information from the expert. Giving your child many experiences — through travel and hobbies, for example — can elevate him to a leadership status concerning that topic. However, an extremely gifted child is sometimes seen as beyond the norm and therefore “weird” and to be avoided.
Controlled leadership can be deftly arranged by an adult if you feel that a child has not had any of the above advantages but deserves the ego-boost that leadership can provide. In a group setting, you can draw positive attention and value to that child. Mention his special expertise in a group discussion. Use him as the example for demonstrating a skill that is new to everyone. Have him pass out supplies. Your intervention may be all that is needed to mark him as a leader.
Determining leadership among a group of children is generally a natural process. They need a leader in order to proceed — to give the group direction. Bad leaders don’t last for long.
Not everyone is cut out for leadership, and certainly not in every situation. Children can tell if a leader is taking them where they want or need to go.
Remember that good following is needed, too!
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com