The Overvaluing of "Leadership" in Parenting

American society has long placed a high premium on being a leader. Leadership skills are hot commodities on transcripts and resumes. Leaders of companies and organizations are revered. Even within the church, there is often a strict division between leaders and laity (aka, those of us in the pews).

So as parents, we are often led to believe that our aim is to produce
leaders. That the goal of parenting is to produce strong individuals. However, not every child is naturally a leader. Should we then, in an attempt to produce a future CEO or President of An Important Community Club, mold that child against his/her grain to have "leadership" skills? In considering this question, this is what I've come up with. (As always, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.)

Our aim ought not be to make a "leader", but rather to help our sons and daughters have discretion enough to know what things to follow. Our society has a bad connotation with the word "follow"- but really following is an EXCELLENT thing- if we're following the right thing.

If a daughter is falling prey to the materialism rampant in American society (even in children and teens), and following her friends in a desire for more and more toys, rather than training in leadership skills, we should begin training her in discretion. This can happen by watching the commercials on TV and asking questions- "what are they trying to get you to believe when they say '_________' about those dolls?" Or "what do you think about _______?" When we're watching a TV show, we ask questions like, "Why did Laura follow Nellie and end up doing that bad thing?" "What do you think you would have done?" "What's the right thing to do?" We can also find examples of someone following someone in a good way... and ask questions about that. Begin getting those kinds of questions to roll around in her heads... so that when she encounters something wrong (whether or not you've talked about it before), she will have a built-in system of evaluation about whatever it is that others are doing, playing with, or saying. Whether or not she is a leader, she will then be equipped to evaluate what others are saying, even those peers she would normally be swayed by. (Of course, just as most things in child rearing, this will need to be continually taught and reinforced.)

To me, teaching discretion is a more important parenting task than teaching leadership... and you can do that while walking down the aisle in Target, you can do it by looking through catalogs, you can do it by looking through Proverbs and finding applicable verses about lust for things, etc... you can do it by watching commercials, and you can do it by pre-game and post-game commentary before and after playing with friends.

Frankly, I think we ought to be all training our children to be better followers- but
we just need to make sure they know what to follow. Our society highly prizes "leaders"- but not many people actually get to be full-out leaders... whether at a job, or in government, or at home or whatever, there's always a chain of command and an authority placed over us. And some people may never get to be the 'leader'- but ALL of us get to be followers at one point or another.

And of course, as Christian parents, we want our children to willingly submit their lives to God's leadership. This all may just be semantics, but I'm just trying to raise a different way of looking at this situation.... In so many ways, if you have a son or daughter who is a "follower", it can be a GREAT thing... I would just spend time shaping his/her view of what is worth following, a la Philippians 4:8.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
In my mind, it should not be our aim to raise all of our children to be "leaders", without regard to who God made them to be. Instead, we should help our sons and daughters know how to discern what is worthy of following after. Thoughts or comments?


Anna S said...

Excellent post, Jess. I think leadership is especially over-emphasized in training girls. Teaching girls to be tough, unbendable (is that a word?) leaders goes agains the feminine nature. And yes. Our society of over-achievers could benefit from remembering not everyone were meant to be leaders.

Catherine said...

I agree that teaching our children discernment is more important than teaching them to be leaders, but I would not discount the importance of leadership. John Maxwell says that leadership is influence - I think that's a great definition. So, almost everyone is a leader in some way, whether through a position in an organization or just in everyday relationships. Leadership can, and should, be developed by Christians because we need to be constantly influencing our culture. So, while I don't think it's all that important to make sure that our kids are out to be president of this club or that organization, it is important to make sure that they know what they believe and how to lead (influence) other people in the same direction. Just another way of looking at it.



Melanie said...

Great post. And very true, not all kids have leadership potential BUT they have have the potential to influence.
I want my kids to learn to discern where their power of influence lies and to follow those worthy of following, influence those they can in a positive way and when they can do neither, to move on.

sarah chia said...

Not a popular idea, but a very necessary one. I grew up thinking there was something wrong with me because I had no drive to be an in-the-spotlight leader (in fact, having attention put on me freaks me out). My parents never put this pressure on me, though. It was the public school that I went to telling me that I need to lead simply because I have the mental capacity to understand the world around me...i.e. advanced classes = leadership quality. No one there considered that my personality is more comfortable with and geared toward behind the scenes support. My older daughter is the same, and it is my goal to help her understand and appreciate, as well as develop, the wonderful, unique personality that God blessed her with. Thanks for your post.

Jessika said...

My mouth dropped open when I read this. I just read your (same)comments on a homeschooling forum and have been happily mulling them over the past few days. I just happened to come over from Sara at Walk Slowly. This discussion dovetails so well with something the Lord has been teaching me about myself- it is not my personality to be a leader in the traditional sense and when I seek or agree to take on those roles, I become overwhelmed on many levels and struggle to finish what's required. Thank you for posting this in both places as it has greatly blessed me as I considered myself and also my daughter. It so eloquently states what's been on my heart.

dcrmom said...

I can relate to Sarah and Jessica in that I do not have any desire to be in a leadership role. Clearly it is not where God is calling me. Jess, I think you make some very astute observations here.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more!! I was just thinking recently about a sermon our former pastor (retired) gave one Sunday about Leadership. He said a friend of his was asked about his soon-to-graduate daughter's leadership skills. And he replied "Well, I don't know that she would make such a great leader, but I do know one thing: she's a very smart follower."

My husband & I had no children at that point, but you can be sure that I tucked away that little nugget of wisdom for future reference! Now,16 years later, I have 3 children, and I have many opportunities to share that wisdom with them, in words, and perhaps even more importantly, by my own example.

Very good post!


Sherry said...

Very thoughtful post. There's a heirarchy of following and leading all through life anyway, so you need to know something of both.

Anonymous said...

This is Sara Janssen's friend Laurie, occasional commenter at Walk Slowly, Live Wildly.

I totally agree about teaching children to be skeptical media consumers. Actually, we don't let our children watch any tv now, but I'm sure someday they will watch some at a friend's house, and I will certainly want to teach them about manipulative advertising.

It seems like you are making kind of a straw man argument, though. Who is saying that parents are supposed to be raising all kids to be leaders?

I think the more traditional parenting approaches put too much emphasis on "independence" long before it is developmentally appropriate. But I'm not sure they are telling parents to churn out little "leaders."

One of the things I love about attachment parenting is that it tells parents to be responsive to their children and attuned to the fact that no one approach will work for every child. Attachment parenting says that we need to be aware of and respectful of our children's unique personalities.

One child might respond well to a certain type of bedtime routine or discipline, but another child, even in the same family, may need a different kind of loving guidance.

If I am doing my job as a parent, my children's personalities will develop as they are meant to, and I will nurture their natural talents. Whether that makes them leaders or followers is of no importance to me, as long as they are happy, kind, caring individuals.

One of the problems I have with literalist readings of the Bible is that they can be quite rigid, failing to acknowledge basic human dynamics. Just as not every child is destined to be a leader, not every woman will thrive in the role of submissive wife.

Jess said...

Hi Laurie. Thanks for your comment.

This whole post actually came from a homeschooling message board I frequent, where a mom WAS struggling because she felt pressured to raise her daughter to be a leader. So, nope- no straw man here, just a real woman struggling because she felt that the only way to help her daughter overcome peer pressure was to teach leadership skills, despite the fact that (by her description) her daughter is a natural follower. Clearly, many others (as the comments themselves reveal) struggle with this as well.

I'll say this though: it's a subtle pressure... found in the fabric of our society--everyone admires the leaders of organizations, but not many people even notice the janitors and servants among us; and found on the bookshelves of Christian bookstores-- there's a leadership section, but where are the shelves overflowing with books about servanthood and following?

Christ's comment was for people to follow him... if those guys had had illusions of grandeur and had been trained in "leadership skills" all their lives, would they have followed a simple man who pleased God? I don't know, I'm just not sure they would have. And even with these guys, who knew what to follow, they were still found fighting about who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of God. They HADN'T been trained in leadership, as so many kids these days are, and yet they STILL ended up struggling with "just being a follower".

Preschools and prep schools are overflowing with kids whose parents are driving them to be "the best", who want them to be "first"... but only a parent who is willfully choosing to go against the grain is found teaching their children that the one who is first will be last.

I'm not saying no one should be a leader. But if you look back at the main thrust of my post, it is directed towards moms who are raising a child who is a natural "follower". Yes, there are natural leaders. But there are also natural followers. And we ought not make them feel like they're second class because they're not driven to be the leader.

Perhaps you don't struggle with that subtle pull, but there are skads of parents who do struggle with the pull to turn out "leaders" rather than recognizing that ALL of us (even the natural leaders) need to know how to discern what to follow.

Thanks for reading and laying out your thoughts here, Laurie. I hope my own are more clear with this clarification of what I was trying to say.

GINA said...

Leadership, defined by our society, would not be what I would teach my children. Our society distorts everything. I think you are right on in this! But, there are certain things we are called to, as believers, regardless of our personality. I have seen many parents excuse thier childs lack of serving, or not reaching out to others, because it "does not come naturally", or "they are shy". I think we are called to move beyond our natural tendency to a be a certain way, and be "leaders" spiritually. To teach our children to stand alone, to confront sin, and to "lead" by way of example among thier peers is what we are called to do as parents. I have seen several young people fold because they were never taught this. They had never practiced leading spiritually, so they compromised. If we do not prepare them for this, they will not know how to do it. Just some thoughts...and something we are teaching our own teens right now! I can't tell you how exciting it is to see my own 17 year old praying about confronting a peer because of her sinful lifestyle. My naturally timid daughter is learning to lead spiritually. It is awesome!

Jennifer, Snapshot said...

Interesting thoughts here! I can tell that I have to have my thinking cap on when I come here. I also think that if we see a natural leadership ability in our children (and that/administration is a spiritual gift), we have to be careful to hone it in such a way as to glorify God--leadership to include others not exclude them, and lead others down the right path, not the wrong one.

Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting your way through some posts!

Brenda said...

What your post made me think of was how important it is for our children to remain under their parent's authority until they are married. My girls will not be "on their own" when they are teens. Sure, they will have much more responsibility than they do now--but that doesn't necessarily mean more freedom. They will make decisions, but under the headship of their father (who is under Christ). I don't think I can explain what I mean in the comments section--I guess I'll turn it into a post.

Andy Rayner said...

I think that what these people who want their kids to be leaders are really saying they want their kids to influence others more than they are influenced back by values or ideas they don;t agree with. Maybe I'm Wrong. But The Scriptures say leadership is a gift first and then developed. If you do not have it, well it can be developed but it's not your real calling.

Romans 12:6 - 8 (NIV) 6We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his£ faith. 7If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

Anonymous said...

Laurie B here again--not sure if anyone is still reading this old thread, but for what it's worth:

Brenda, I also do not think children should be "on their own" while they are teenagers, but I would encourage you not to pressure your kids to get married at a young age, immediately upon leaving the parental home.

My siblings and I got married relatively late in life (we were all in our 30s at the times of our weddings), and we have four good marriages.

The divorce rate for people who get married in their late teens or early 20s is much higher than the nationwide average.

Jess, I may be underestimating the pressure some parents feel to conform to some outside standard.

One nice thing about growing up as a member of a minority community (less than one percent of the population in the city I grew up in) is that I don't feel like my family needs to do things the way mainstream American culture tells us to do things.

My husband's parents are from a different country, so even though he grew up in the US, he also felt "separate" in terms of culture. So he also doesn't feel pressure to follow the advice of whatever parenting guru is selling a lot of books these days.

My advice for parents is to turn off the tv, turn off talk radio, read books by a diverse group of authors, then use your best judgment, keeping in mind that all children are not the same, even children in the same family.

Laura said...

I'm new here but I wanted to comment b/c I enjoyed this post. I very much agree, I think often we assume there is one way to be a christian, one personality type. but God gave us all different qualities and gifts and those needs to be carefully nurtured and encouraged and refined so our children can be balanced christian woman/men. It makes me sad that so much emphasis is on
"training up a child in the way he should grow" ignoring that children are not all the same. we get caught up in this "army of God" mentality thinking we need to create some kinda army of leaders to war against the rest of the world. But God isn't defenseless and He never called us to do this. besides I think it would be far more beneficial for us to raise our children to be responsible God fearing individuals who can think for themselves. Then they will best equipped to do whatever it is God has for them.