Teenagers, Parents, and Leadership

This piece originally appeared in the October 2018 ‘Choice’ issue of Fernie Fix Magazine.

Adults (in British Columbia) get to declare their choices for local government elected officials on October 20th. Although young people cannot yet participate in this democratic opportunity, it’s a perfect time to think and talk together about leadership. In essence, leadership is simply choosing to take something on and then following through. Leadership is a decision, an attitude, and a mindset.

How to build leadership skills with teenagers:

  • Act like a leader and model leadership. ‘Leadership’ doesn’t necessarily mean someone else has given you a formal position. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t been officially appointed to be in charge of your bathroom renovation or a little league team or a local committee; what matters is that you think about the project as a whole, take your contribution and role seriously, and work to make things go well.
  • Listen to your teenager at length. Start this early and do it often. Listen with deep interest and care. This gives her/him a chance to clarify their thinking and practice articulating it.
  • Welcome their emotions from the day they are born. The best way for children to become emotionally intelligent is by feeling their feelings, learning to name them, talking about their feelings, and getting support from caring adults during upsets. Emotional intelligence sets leaders apart.
  • Let – or require – that s/he make some decisions about their life. You get to be a consultant and guide. But let them be in charge much of the time. Teenagers need to practice leading their lives while they are still at home and have a safety net around them. That way they get some experience and proficiency under their belts before they are off on their own.
  • Demonstrate your commitment to gender equity. Remind your teens often that the world needs both female perspectives and male perspectives in leadership, as authors, as teachers, in parenting, on governance, in the arts, etc. Model collaborative decision making at home between female and male views. Let the interests and concerns of females in the home be just as legitimate as male interests and concerns.
  • Take teenagers seriously. No matter what they are doing. 16 year-olds talking about skate board tricks? Ask about their skills and vision. 14 year-olds putting together a dance video? Ask why they chose that song and who they hope will watch the finished product. Don’t discredit or dismiss their thoughts and ideas.
  • Engage teenagers in discussions of all kinds. Talk about the things that are important to them. Why does he love his favourite show? Why does she think that reproductive rights are crucial for girls? What gets hard with his close friends? How does she think her school could be improved? Where would he donate the money if he had $100 to give to charity?
  • Encourage teens to take drama classes, sing in a choir, join the debate club, or anything similar that may get them in front of an audience. Leaders don’t have to be public speakers, but many are and it’s a valuable skill for leaders to cultivate.
  • Notice and acknowledge leadership and point out the contributions of leaders. Many of the things people do in the world that make things go well are invisible. Regular humans organize music festivals, they lead beach clean-ups, they plan family reunions, they coordinate online spaces, they teach sexual health workshops, and they design sports events. Make this leadership visible by mentioning it when you see it.
  • Model truly respectful disagreement. Difficult conversations are around us every day, and we won’t agree with everything we hear. Be curious and ask others what they think and how they came to see an issue the way they do. Practice saying, ‘that’s really interesting. My perspective is a little different…’ Basic conflict resolution is related to emotional intelligence, and much of it can be as simple as making requests rather than making complaints, asking others about their intentions, and sharing how you’ve been impacted by the actions of others.

There are lots of ways parents, teachers, coaches, and other adults can support young people to grow as leaders. I like to say that leadership is about seeing to it that something happens. Leadership is the difference between ‘I want’ and ‘I will’.

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