The skills our kids really need

Barbara Coloroso weighs in on leadership, positive choices and the skills that really matter

No matter what assets children might be born with—intelligence, a good family, even good looks—they have the best chance at a happy, productive life if they develop sound leadership and life skills.

Leadership & life skills

Life skills are the core abilities that enable people to be productive members of society. That includes being able to communicate and get along with people, to set goals, manage stress and solve problems. “Life and leadership skills help children develop confidence in their ability to think for themselves, to make good choices and to take responsibility for their actions,” explains internationally renowned parenting author and speaker, Barbara Coloroso. “That includes being able to make hard ethical decisions in the face of peer pressure, such as standing up for someone who is being bullied or shunned by their peers.”

The leadership skills that are most important for kids are not so much about being able to lead other people. They are about inner leadership: being a leader in your own life, being able to make things happen rather than having things happen to you.

Although our influence on children’s development starts at birth, the core capabilities of life and leadership skills really start to take shape in the middle school years, Grades 5 to 8. Pre-adolescence is also a crucial stage in the parent/child relationship, just before the feeling of waning influence most parents experience in the teen years. If your child is in this age group, now is a good time to clarify the ways in which you influence his development of leadership and life skills.

Let’s start by thinking about the building blocks of these skills: deep caring and a strong sense of self. The latter is bigger than self-esteem, says Coloroso. “It’s an outcome rather than an attribute, something that comes from being competent and cooperative and able to make decisions.”

“Deep caring” is particularly important to Coloroso. It means having a highly developed ability to see and understand the needs of others, plus a desire to do something about those needs, along with an understanding that we are connected to a common humanity.

“If all we mean is being able to influence other people, bullies and gang leaders have amazing leadership skills,” Coloroso explains. “The problem is their thoughts and actions are not rooted in deep caring.”

A child’s first lesson in caring deeply comes when an adult says to her: “I’m here for you,” not just in words, but in actions. As parents, most of us find that an easy message to deliver when our children are very little, obviously vulnerable, and have needs that are immediate and evident. Our task becomes trickier when we are faced with an older child who often seems to be saying, “Leave me alone, I’m an independent person now,” (unless, of course, she needs a ride to the mall!).

Therefore, as our children approach the teen years, we have to work harder to maintain a strong parent/child connection. With less time together, we must be more alert for little opportunities to connect during family meals, car trips, and other routine activities. It’s also important to show interest in your children’s interests, even if their passions seem superficial or incomprehensible. Communication with preteens and teens is often an artful, trial and error process of moving in and backing off. Whatever you do, just don’t back off completely. The foundation of connection and caring we build around our children bolsters them as they tackle the three core developmental tasks that underpin leadership and life skills:

• Learning that their actions have impacts, both positive and negative.

• Having opportunities to identify and develop their abilities, interests and passions.

• Developing a sense of connection to their community and to humanity as a whole.

Actions and impacts

One way to help kids connect their actions with outcomes is by not rescuing them every time they make a mistake. Instead show them the problem caused by their behaviour and give them as much ownership of the problem as they can handle, suggests Coloroso. “Then give them some options for solving the problem—paying for or fixing damage caused by carelessness, for example.” When kids do something well, knowledge and comment on the process—the effort, initiative and fun that led to the accomplishment—rather than the result.

Opportunities

Not all kids will be world-beaters in academics, sports or the arts, but they do all have curiosities, interests and abilities we can help them discover and develop. “A quiet, less outgoing child may be a good listener,” says Coloroso. “Maybe she can spend some time at a senior citizens’ centre writing out letters for someone with Parkinson’s disease or another disability.”

Community connections

Whatever their abilities or accomplishments might be, children need to understand that they didn’t get here all on their own, says Coloroso. Therefore they need experiences that will help them learn how their abilities can make a contribution to society. That can start with very average kinds of community involvement like babysitting, helping out with charitable events, helping an elderly relative or neighbour with house or yard work, or even simply being part of get-togethers with extended family and friends.

Outside activities such as sports, lessons and life skills programs are also important ways to help children discover and develop interests and skills in the context of belonging to a group or community. For example, kids.now, a national youth leadership charity, offers a life skills program that has helped many Canadian children in Grade 7 and 8. This free, in-school, afterschool program is run by volunteer mentors from the community. kids.now was founded ten years ago by Canadian teacher Janet King. “Parents can’t do it all themselves,” she says. “Our program provides a safe, positive environment for children to develop skills that last a lifetime, like goal-setting and stress management. It also provides another caring adult to take an interest in a child’s life. We want to support parents’ efforts to help their children develop the leadership and life skills that will help them become successful, productive members of society.”

Coloroso subscribes to this thinking. “In today’s world, many influences push kids in the direction of thinking in terms of ‘Me, mine and more.’ What we want is to offer supports that encourage our children to be thinking about ‘Us, ours and enough.’”

See our 10 top tips for nurturing leadership, life skills, and a strong sense of self in kids