“Leadership” has become the buzzword of American boardrooms, political back-rooms, and educational halls. Often, success is limited to those who can inspire their associates, employees, customers, and the public with his or her ideas and drive.
Unfortunately, the ability to lead, though highly desirable, is often elusive, as evidenced by the thousands of articles, books, videos, and training classes available over the Internet dealing with the subject. Whether leaders are born or trained remains a subject of controversy. However, there is no dispute that all leaders share certain skills that can be identified and developed.
The paths we follow as adults are generally determined by the abilities and interests we develop as children. While there are exceptions, the vast majority of people have established characters and personalities by the time they are age seven. As a parent, this means you have the ability to help your children develop critical, advantageous skills.
Critical Skills to Teach Your Children
As parents, we influence our children by what we do and don’t do, what we value and ignore, how we spend our time with our children, and the interests and activities we encourage. A number of skills can be introduced to your children as part of their normal everyday activities, and will serve them well for the rest of their lives.
1. Reading & Writing
Reading and writing builds vocabularies, instills logical and expressive thinking, enhances listening skills, and consequently encourages empathy and sympathy, which are crucial attributes of leadership.
- Reading. Strong reading and writing skills are essential to life in the 21st century. The foundation for lifelong reading begins with oral reading to your children, which introduces new ideas and initiates curiosity and creativity. Reading stimulates the brain and is more neurobiologically demanding than passive activities like watching television and listening to the radio. According to Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, “When you read, you have more time to think. Reading gives you a unique pause button for comprehension and insight.”
- Writing. The act of putting thoughts down on paper enhances self-expression and nurtures individuality. Some experts believe that writing encourages the learning of math and science concepts by “enhancing the brain’s intake, processing, retaining, and retrieving of information.”
Teaching your children to love reading and encouraging writing skills is a gift they will enjoy for the rest of their lives, and is one that will benefit them in any chosen career. The ability to succinctly and clearly collect one’s thoughts and summarize them into an interesting, persuasive narrative is a skill that many want, but few possess. You can give your child a real advantage in the trials and competitions he or she will face as an adult by encouraging reading and writing.
As the world has grown more interconnected and interdependent, the ability to exchange thoughts, feelings, and information is critical. Effective communication skills on an individual as well as a group basis enables your child to more easily achieve the things he or she wants from life. Despite the obvious advantages of this skill, however, few parents actively encourage good communication skills, particularly ones that are useful when speaking to groups or public audiences.
However, there are several fairly simple things parents can do to help their children become good communicators:
- Encourage Proper Pronunciation. Words convey meanings and paint verbal pictures. Mispronouncing words, particularly common words that are often mispronounced, creates false impressions and is harmful to your child’s image.
- Build Their Vocabulary. The average American adult knows approximately 20,000 words out of approximately 470,000 English entries in “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged,” but uses only about 3,000 daily in conversations. The more words your child knows and understands, the better he or she will be able to communicate with others. Reading aloud and encouraging the use of a thesaurus are good ways to improve vocabulary for children and adults.
- Teach Them to Speak in Front of Others. Many people develop a fear of standing in front of a group and speaking, even though most children like being the center of attention. Developing an early ability to speak in front of others is an asset that pays benefits throughout one’s life. Toastmasters, best known for its adult speaking classes, also offers a speaking program for kids.
Learning a second language at an early age provides multiple benefits, including a physical increase in the density of gray matter in the brain. Gray matter density is associated with language, memory, and attention.
Dr. Andrea Mechelli and her colleagues at London’s Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience discovered in a 2004 study that the “structure of the human brain is altered by the experience of acquiring a second language.” Other academic studies have reinforced the fact that bilingual children consistently outperform their peers who speak a single language in tests of comprehension, mental sophistication, and mental dexterity.
In an age where the world is flat, the ability to converse with people in other lands in their own native language, particularly where products are manufactured or sold, brings tremendous professional and social opportunities not open to a person limited to American English. And, best of all, introducing your child to another language is easy and it’s just as easy for them to learn due to their greater neural and linguistic “plasticity.”
4. Physical Confidence
The benefits of physical activities for children have been known for ages. The development of gross and fine muscles to perform everyday activities, the positive impact upon possible obesity in later years, and the mental stimulus provided by exercise have been found in one study after another. Most experts recommend that children spend a minimum of 60 minutes a day in vigorous play and exercise, and no more than two hours daily, if at all, watching television or engaged in computer games, the Internet, and other electronic media.
How talented your children are at sports is far less important than simply getting out and participating in the ones they like. Parents should encourage their kids to play a variety of different organized sports and games, some which focus on individual achievement like golf, tennis, and swimming, and others requiring team efforts like baseball, basketball, volleyball, and soccer.
Football is a unique challenge for parents with its focus on size, physical domination, and violence, which can lead to permanent, debilitating injuries. At the same time, it is especially popular in secondary and upper school due to social benefits within those communities. If your child determines to play football, encourage him or her to participate in other activities in the off-seasons, and be sure the team has adequate medical oversight and everyday trainers.
Golf and tennis are two sports that can be continued and enjoyed throughout life, providing both physical benefits and regular social interaction. Also, both are conducive to later business careers. According to a recent study by Gueorgui Kolev and Robin Hogarth at Poppeu Fabra University in Barcelona, “Golfers earn more than non-golfers (17% more), and pay increases with golfing ability.”
The CEOs of Ford Motor company and Micron Technology, as well as 30 million other Americans, regularly play tennis. Playing either sport well invariably leads to invitations to “play with the boss,” and thus make an invaluable connection.
5. Musical Intelligence
While music has been long recognized as an emotional experience, we still don’t know how the sounds are processed in the brain or why music stays in our memories for so long. However, we do know that listening to music or learning to play a musical instrument is helpful in treating children who have experienced physical trauma, have difficulties in regulating their emotions or behavior, or suffer poor concentration.
Dr. Gordon Shaw, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, described music as a “window into higher brain function,” and is particularly important during the first five years of life.
Studies of the effects of music on preschoolers through college have revealed several trends:
- Involvement in music and movement activities helps children develop good social and emotional skills. Even a single year’s worth of music lessons can have lasting effects on brain functions.
- Secondary students who were involved in band and orchestra reported the lowest use of drugs.
- High school music students score higher verbal and math scores on the SAT than their peers.
- Music majors in college are the most likely group of college graduates to be admitted into medical school.
There are multiple advantages for adults as well: Listening to music, taking musical lessons, or playing an instrument can reduce stress and depression. Music is used extensively to treat the elderly suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, grief, chronic pain, stroke, and depression. Introduce your children to the joy of music early so they can appreciate it for the rest of their lives.
As parents, we seek to give our children the tools to gain happiness and success, but we never know for sure whether we’re doing enough or too much. We wonder how to protect them while we prepare for the time when we won’t be around. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “We may not be able to prepare the future for our children, but at least we can at least prepare our children for the future.”
What additional crucial skills do you think children need to be taught at a young age?