#TalkEarly: raising kids to be leaders


When I attended the #TalkEarly Summit in Washington, DC in August, my favorite part of the session was a talk from Lisa Graham Keegan. Lisa is an education reform advocate, author, member of the advisory board of The Century Council, and a mom of five adult kids.  

I loved Lisa’s presentation because it was honest, frank, and inspiring. My favorite part was listening to Lisa talk about how she worked to keep her own kids on a positive path.

Instead of focusing on just trying to get her kids not to do things, she raised them in a culture of service and leadership. She instilled in them that it’s their responsibility to live for a purpose and to be leaders for other people. 

In other words she concentrated on filling her kids’ lives with purpose and meaningful work, rather than just trying to help them avoid potholes.

That really spoke to me because it’s so different from what I grew up with. I honestly don’t remember anyone encouraging me to develop a sense of responsibility to others, besides basic kindness and charity when needed. I was never told that I was, or could be, a leader. And the way I was guided, particularly in my teen years, focused much more on not getting into trouble than it did accomplishing amazing things. 

I grew up in a middle-class, small town family in the Midwest. If anything, I absorbed the message that I shouldn’t take myself too seriously or put myself above others. I think those are both great lessons to learn, but they can also lead us to be minimize ourselves and what we have to offer. 

As a teenager I lived for the day to day and didn’t give a whole lot of thought to what I might be able to give to the world…what my purpose might be for being here in the first place.

So Lisa’s talk inspired me to think about the way I can incorporate messages that don’t come naturally to me into the way I interact with my kids. How I should be talking to them about living their lives as an example for others, and how what they do doesn’t just affect them, but everyone around them. Not only talking…but modeling, too.

It changes everything when you look at it that way, doesn’t it? If I see the way I parent my kids as not just about me and my child but also as potentially helping or influencing a newer mom, it makes me think more carefully about the choices I make. Likewise, if kids see themselves as role models and leaders, they’re likely to make a lot safer and more responsible choices when faced with tough situations like underage drinking or drinking and driving.

So I’m trying to overcome my Midwestern “don’t take yourself so seriously” sensibility when it comes to helping my kids tap into their best selves and recognize themselves as leaders.

One thing that’s helping me is realizing that everyone has the potential to lead. It’s not a zero-sum game: if I’m a leader, it doesn’t make everyone around me a follower; it just means we all lead different people in different ways.

I made plenty of bad choices with alcohol as a teen because I saw myself as a follower. I didn’t consider myself to be in-control or empowered or working toward a greater purpose. I didn’t think about the way my choices impacted others. I just sort of floated along and am very lucky not to have hurt myself along the way. 

If there’s one thing I want for my kids – and this took me many years to learn for myself – it’s the ability to stand up and say “This is dangerous” or “This is dumb” Or “We don’t need to do this to have fun.” 

And not just the ability, but the desire. To see in themselves a purpose that isn’t served by partying or putting themselves in dangerous situations.

To do that, I need to help my kids see themselves as leaders, not followers.

They need to recognize in themselves a responsibility to help others, even to shape opinion.

To do that, they need to feel like what they say matters and will be heard. How can I do that? I haven’t quite worked it out yet, but I’m thinking it looks like this: Listen. Take them seriously. Tell them what they do matters. And always encourage them to do a little better…for themselves, and for others. 

Look for more posts about talking early to kids about drinking over the next few months as part of the #TalkEarly program sponsored by the Century Council. 



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