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Building leadership in kids

We all want our children to succeed; show me a child trying something new, and I'll show you a parent anxiously hoping for the best. What that best looks like varies from home to home and family to family, but the desired outcome is the same - we want our children to experience happiness, success, and joy. This means that, at some point, our children will have to navigate difficult or uncomfortable situations requiring our children to be little leaders. But are leaders born or made? Regardless of the answer there are things we can do as parents to help develop those skills and prepare our kids for when that time comes.

Encourage emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is an important quality in a good leader, as it encourages accountability, helps to build strong and trusting relationships, and helps leaders understand and process difficult emotions to make better decisions in challenging times. We can help develop emotional intelligence in our children by talking about their feelings with them, and encouraging them to learn about and understand the feelings and perspectives of those around them. With younger kids, this looks like labeling emotions and helping them to identify and label. For older children, you can do this by encouraging them to think about and consider multiple viewpoints of different issues - either personal or in the media - they may encounter throughout their day.

Praise the effort over the outcome (embrace failure)

Nobody succeeds all the time, no matter how hard they try. The most effective leaders are able to take failures in stride and use the experience to grow or change course. We can foster this trait by appreciating the effort our children put into things, rather than focusing on the outcome. It's great when our little scholar gets the top marks in school, but what happens when somebody else takes that coveted spot? By praising effort, we teach our kids they don't have to be the best to be worthwhile. This increases their self-esteem (nobody can always be the best) and actually positively increases the performance. Kids want positive attention and they'll work hard(er) to get it. To encourage this mindset outside of school, be open and curious about different successes and failures. What did we learn? What could or should we do differently next time?

Encourage creativity and play

Creative leaders encourage innovation and allow for adaptive problem solving that can help foster change. But creativity is more than waiting for inspiration to strike, and can be encouraged as a discipline that keeps our minds nimble. Creativity can be embraced in many different ways. Little children's creativity can be encouraged through creative and interactive play with parents and peers. This is how children explore and make sense of the world, and try new ideas on for size. Older children may benefit from other forms of creative expression; whether it is Dungeons and Dragons, creative writing, acting, or drawing, there is a world of creative expression out there to explore! Bonus points if you do it with them.

Embrace curiosity

Curiosity has been described as a leadership superpower. A curious leader is less concerned with being right, and more interested in understanding the how and the why. A curious leader listens before they talk, and the result can be transformative. Children are naturally curious, which can be a blessing and a curse after they've asked the same question for what feels like the millionth time. In order to encourage and engage a curious mind, it is important to answer those questions in an age-appropriate way and as often as we can. Ask your own questions that start with how, what, and who, and encourage thought and reflection. Wonder aloud at the world as you walk through it - I wonder where that plane is going? I wonder how many leaves are on that tree? I wonder what animals live in that forest? Developing healthy curiosity gives a child space to grow, question, and learn about what is all around them.

Set a good example

We are our children's first and best teachers. As we navigate through our own lives, our children watch us to learn how to handle all the different experiences and challenges life throws our way. It is therefore important that we also do what we are asking of our kids. This is hard! But when we do this, we show our kids we really know what we are talking about and are willing to walk with them through the tough parts. So learn from your failures, play some games, walk through your life with curiosity, and embrace your own emotional intelligence as you work towards building up the little leader in your own life.


Sarah is a Registered Provisional Psychologist in the province of Alberta. Sarah has a long history of working with children, youth, and families in distress. Sarah is passionate about her work and those in her care. Visit for more information. 


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