A Parent's Leadership

Erika Petrelli
Erika Petrelli

What does it mean, as a parent, to “step into your leadership”? Beyond the stereotypical “Because I’m the parent and I said so” form of leadership, how am I most effectively leading my children?  What does it even mean to lead our children?  Is it teaching them right from wrong?  Is it telling them what to do?  Is it pushing them to get good grades and achieve great things?   Possibly, that’s part of it.  Of course that’s part of it.  But the problem with limiting our definition of parental leadership to those things is that it’s just that, limiting.  It is such a short amount of time where we have the opportunity to demonstrate that kind of leadership as parents… what about our life-long relationship with our children?  What does leadership mean then?  

My boss Christine Courtney offers ten amazing tips on how to help kids step into their own leadership. Musing on her tips, and this topic of leadership, I’ve come up with ten tips designed to remind me how I can best step into my leadership as a parent.    

And of course there’s this:  there is no one right way to parent, and therefore there is no “right” answer for how to step into your parental leadership.  For every one person that relates to the tips I suggest here, there will surely be ten others that scoff at them.  My kids are only six and four, so really, what do I know?  On the flipside, my kids are six and four so I’ve been in an intensive field study for longer than most graduate programs.   

So take a look at Christine’s tips and take a look at my tips… and then go write your own tips; write the ones that are whispering in your ear, that are nagging at your heart.  Write the ones that remind you of what’s most important and precious on your parenting journey.  

  1. Talk to Your Children. Talk to them as an equal not as some kind of “subordinate.”  Talk to them as if you assume they will understand what you are saying or will ask you if they don’t.  Treat them as a partner in your family and remember that the more you talk to them the more they will talk to you.    
  2. Listen to Your Children. Listen to them as if they have smart, funny, creative, important things to say.  Because they do.  Even if sometimes it takes an hour for them to get their thoughts organized around their words.  Even if the smart and funny stuff is bookended by really dumb stuff.   Even if they’ve been telling you creative and important stuff non-stop for the past hour.   Listen—and by that I mean real listening, not pretend listening.
  3. Love Your Children First. Critique second.  So, if I start by telling you that your room is a mess and I’m upset by how many times I’ve told you to put on your shoes, and then I finish by giving you a kiss and telling you to have a great day, I’m showing you my priorities.  Or if I drill into you about the chore left undone the moment you walk off the school bus, and then only later ask you about your day, I’m showing you my priorities. Are my priorities in the right place? 
  4. Allow Your House To Get Messy For The Sake Of Their Creativity. Yes, a neat and tidy house is nice (I think.  That’s what people and magazines tell me anyway.  I wouldn’t know from personal experience.)  But while we might have a desk or an office, our children’s work space is sometimes the living room or the dining room table.   A Lego Project may take a full week to complete.   A village of dinosaurs may be the most important thing, and it may take them days to set it up just so.  A table full of crayons and paper may stir a creative idea or project.   I say, let the dinosaurs win out over the perfectly placed throw pillows.   There will time for throw pillows later.    
  5. Say YES To Crazy Ideas. My son recently woke up with these as his very first words:  “Mom, go downstairs and get a box and cut a rectangle out of it and then glue it to my clothes so it can be my QUEST COM!!!”   The other night my daughter decided she wanted to make homemade peanut butter, and she wanted to do it in the bathroom (because, you know, why not?) with peanuts, butter, and water.     Crazy Ideas from our children are often just that—crazy.   It’s so easy to say “no” to them… so easy that “no” often comes out of our mouth before the idea is fully out of theirs.    Why not try to say “yes” sometimes instead?  
  6. Show Your Imperfections. Think you need to be perfect for your children? Sometimes I do, but here is the major flaw I’ve decided is inherent in that belief—if you are always perfect for your children then you are teaching them that they need to be perfect for you.   And if they feel like they need to be perfect, they won’t feel safe to share their fears or mistakes with you.   Imperfections are essential for growth, so why not lead the way by embracing your own?  
  7. Say “I’m Sorry.” A lot. I make mistakes all the time as a parent; I don’t imagine I’m alone on this one.   But do I always remember to own the mistake, to apologize for it, to look my children in the eye and offer a sincere “I’m so sorry.”?  I ask them to apologize all the time—to each other, to me or their father…   they deserve the same from me, and they need to see that mistakes happen but how we handle those mistakes is what matters most.    
  8. Say “I Love You.” A lot. I love you I love you I love you I love you.   Oh, and did I mention I love you?  “I love you” should start and end the day and should randomly show up in the middle.  “I love you” should accompany pancakes and homework.  “I love you” should kick off a tv show or a game of Connect 4.    “I love you” should be the hum that constantly rings in your children’s ears.
  9. Go Over The Top. The childhood that your children experience is, in part, designed by you. For a very brief time, you have your hands on the controls of their dreams and beliefs and perceptions of the world.   How magical will you make it?   What kind of adventures will they remember? As my boss would say, “Add the glitter.”  
  10. Eat The Ice Cream. Stop worrying about your diet or how you’ll look in those jeans. Celebrate with your children when celebrations are happening—say yes to the cake and the ice cream.   Join them for a popsicle.   Find the joy in Halloween Candy.   Definitely make a detour for a cupcake.  Feed your own inner child and allow that joy to mingle with your children’s.  


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Erika Petrelli

By Erika Petrelli

Erika Petrelli is the Senior Vice President of Leadership Development (and self-declared Minister of Mischief) for The Leadership Program, a New York City-based organization. With a Masters degree in Secondary Education, Erika has been in the field of teaching and training for decades, and has been with The Leadership Program since 1999. There she has the opportunity to nurture the individual leadership spirit in both students and adults across the country, through training, coaching, keynotes, and writing. The legacy Erika strives daily to create is to be the runway upon which others take flight. If you enjoy these blogs, you should check out her interactive journal, On Wings & Whimsy: Finding the Extraordinary Within the Ordinary, now available for sale on Amazon. While her work takes her all around the country, Erika calls Indiana home.