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Carolyn Hax: Should parents encourage their ‘follower’ son to be a leader?

1 week ago 50

Hi, Carolyn: Our elementary-school-age son is a bright, sweet kid who is very much a “follower,” socially speaking. Each year since he started school, he’s had one or two friends he revolves around and who guide most of his decision-making. If Buddy wants to play with trucks, he wants to play with trucks. If Buddy feels like doing the class assignment, he’ll do the class assignment, too.

We have always liked his friends, and of course I realize the world needs all sorts of people in it. His dad and I are more self-directed, so we have some concerns about what this will mean for him down the road. Should we be encouraging him to be more of a leader, even if it goes against his nature? Is there any way to harness his awesome supportive talents and make them work well for him?

— Parent

Parent: People don’t need leadership qualities to be happy or well-adjusted; what they need is a sure sense of self.

Giving that to a compliant kid could be tough for two parents who are “self-directed.” On the one hand, I can see both of you doing your dominant-personality thing and taking expedient advantage of a child who puts up little resistance. I mean, I’d do the same thing. A toddler/tween/teen who doesn’t fight back on every! damn! thing!? Sign me up, sign up every parent, and buy stock in spinach.

On the other hand, I can see you both questioning whether his “follower” nature is a good thing — if only because it is so unlike either of you.

That’s how quickly, how unwittingly, you could undermine his confidence just by being yourselves and doing your best as parents.

So I suggest you start with a full embrace of the idea that a good follower is as valuable as a good leader. Each depends on the other. Then slow yourselves down enough, and train your ears enough, to pick up on your kid’s softer signals. Give him extra room to discover and express who he is.

After taking this step back to listen and think, it may be that your next step is simply to resist this recent impulse to correct him.

“Who he is” might always be more content to let others set the agenda than you believe, in your hearts, is healthy — which, again, is sometimes how it goes. You created a different, independent human, not an extension of yourselves. Instead of “Be like us,” think: “Be the best version of you.” Your job is not to change him to suit your comfort level but to teach him to live well within his own.

Re: Follower: I wonder whether you’re muddling leadership with assertiveness? He can be a happy and thriving follower while still needing the skills to set his boundaries, say no and advocate for himself. You should teach any type of child how to do those things.

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Great point, thank you. Supporting vs. blind following. Respecting kids’ bodily autonomy is one essential (and widely applicable) way to teach such boundaries.

Another reader’s response:

· Hi! This is me! I had the unfortunate experience of being in the Scouts, where everyone is supposed to be a leader (umm, how is that supposed to work?!) and was endlessly given the message of, “Be a leader, not a follower!”

You know what? I care much more about WHO I am with than WHAT we do. So who cares if he wants to play trucks with Timmy? Isn’t it more important that he’s playing happily with Timmy and developing that relationship?

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