I Accidentally Raised a Leader

Like most parents I know, I stumble out of bed every morning ready to wing it. Well, that’s not completely true. Sometimes, I’m not ready at all, but I still manage to muddle through. When I got pregnant, I studied up on all the developmental stages and parenting strategies, hoping to ace this having kids thing. No book or blog could prep me for the day to day adventures of life with kids, though, and so I’ve improvised a lot. Once I realized that I wouldn’t break my daughter with the wrong brand of organic cereal or ruin her life by not putting her in ballet soon enough, I started forgetting to check out the latest parenting book or ask all my friends for advice on everything from sneakers to schools.

When I was pregnant, I thought my daughter would only eat organic food I had grown, but now, 7 years in, she gets her fair share of cold pizza and chips, and she’s occasionally had ice cream and candy for dinner. Bedtime is a moving target, and it doesn’t matter which shoes are the best for leg muscle development or which are the trendiest because she is barefoot 75% of the time. We sometimes forget to put shoes on in public, and she likes to dance shoeless in the snow.

Sometimes, we get too busy for shoes.

We aren’t neglectful or anything, but there’s a lot of breathing room in our lifestyle and expectations. We have bedtimes, chores, and behavior goals, but often life gets in the way of those things. We don’t push our daughter to be or do anything in particular. I think the right age to start soccer or gymnastics is when she asks. A spelling test is perfect if she tried, complete with all the missed double consonants and backwards letters. Our focus is on happiness and calm more than achievement. This wasn’t exactly a conscious choice. It’s just what happened when we put the parenting books away and squeezed raising a kid into everything else in our life.

Sometimes, there’s barely even time for cold pizza.

So I was joyfully shocked when we got an email announcing that our daughter was one of 2 students in her whole school being recognized for her “civic leadership and drive for positive change.” My big-hearted, wild-haired first grader is a leader. I have lots of friends pushing their kids into prestigious schools, driving them to practice on the best soccer teams, and really purposefully raising strong leaders. All this time that I’ve been focused on happiness and absentmindedly trying to remember homework, I inadvertently raised my own little leader, too.

She specifically received the award because she loves helping out, always welcomes new kids, and spends part of recess picking up litter. She might not be a ringleader, and she’s not at the top of the class, but her compassion is so true and boundless that people notice. Kindness is such a part of who she is, that she approached the stage like a startled deer, scanning the auditorium to glance at all the kids she considers leaders. She’s humble because kindness and empathy are just who she is. She would never consider these traits as strengths to cultivate. She’s so busy leading that she doesn’t know she’s a leader.

When we first heard she was getting the award, friends and family congratulated us. It felt like the award was more for us than for her. I couldn’t quite accept that I had anything to do with my daughter choosing to be such a quiet, gentle leader, though. Sure, my husband and I value kindness over achievement, and we are over the moon that the school recognized her compassion. We couldn’t push her to be this way, though, because it’s just how she is. She lives for hugs, smiles, and connections with the world around her. This award is all on her.

I’m just a joyful bystander lucky enough to cross her path.

She’s always been a trailblazer in her own quiet and warm way.

Back when I was going to learn all about parenting from books, my little lodger gently let me know what she needed from a mom. I was mindlessly drumming on my taut belly when she suddenly swam up and tapped back. Then she darted to the side and tapped out a different rhythm. I answered, and we proceeded to pass the long days until we could meet face to face communicating in this sort of Morse code. It was as if she was asking me to set aside the books and just listen. I could trust that she would let me know what she needed in a parent. She was so small and her view of the world was nothing more than a dark cocoon, but she was already quietly guiding me.

I later learned that this tapping game is something parents try to teach their babies. Like listening to Mozart through headphones on mama’s belly, it can help with cognitive development. Some friends asked how I managed to teach my daughter, hoping to give their kids an edge with the exercise.

“I didn’t,” I would shrug, “She taught me.”

It was her way of soothingly asserting, “Don’t worry, Mom. This is my life, and I’ve got this.”

So there I was, carrying this wise little unborn leader around. The parenting books migrated from the bedside table to the bottom shelf and then eventually to Goodwill. I stopped reading the experts and listened to the powerful voice inside me. Since then, I’ve known that my responsibility  isn’t to mold my daughter into who I think she ought to be but to walk beside her down her path of discovery.

So when she tiptoes out barefoot into the snow to feel the invigorating bite, I don’t rush to scoop her up and scold her. If making mud pies with friends is more pressing than the dance recital, I can’t help but say yes. When she asked for a “healthy mind day like grown-ups take” after a difficult week, I laughed and nodded, “Just this once, okay?”

If she says it’s more important to play in the mud with her friends than go to the recital, then it is.

She can lead others because we trust her to lead herself. It’s instinctive for her. Her kindness is so visceral that things like jealousy, greed, and violence baffle her. It has nothing to do with us. She came this way.

While I am infinitely proud that she has been recognized for her gentle leadership, I am just as proud of her for simply being herself. We celebrate her  acceptance of her weaknesses as much as we do her pride in her strengths. I love every backwards 5, tumble on her bike, and tantrum over toys as much as I love catching a snippet of a pep talk to a friend or leafing through her songwriting notebook.

I love that leading is such a part of her character that she doesn’t realize she is a positive force in the lives of others. When we discussed the award the other night, I asked her who she thought might get it. She rattled off a list of friends who excelled at different things. One classmate coaches friends in sports on the playground. A girlfriend influenced the whole first grade to wear a certain thing. From the smartest kids to class clowns and best athletes, her list of friends to praise was long. She spends her time paying attention to the people around her, so she notices little details to celebrate in everyone.

“Do you think you would ever get an award like this?”

“Oh, no way, Mom,” she answered quickly and plainly, “I’m not bossy enough to be a leader.”

“So…a leader needs to control others?”

“No…” she hesitated, “But a good leader gets people to follow their plan…I’m just a friend who listens.”

Today, after she bashfully accepted the award, she whispered, “I should have remembered to nominate my friend who started the litter collection group with me. He’s a true leader.”

As she wrung her hands and tried to graciously accept praise for something that is just part of her character, I smiled, “You lead with listening, and you are so good at it, you don’t even know you’re doing it. That’s a true leader, too.”

She’s humbly trying not to smile, but the pride shines in her eyes.

I still have a lot to learn, but I know that the world can always use another quiet, humble leader. We’re lucky that someone is celebrating what we have always known, since she first reached out to communicate from the warmth of the womb. The true fortune is simply knowing her, though. She has looked deep into who I am and pointed out things I never would have considered. Whenever she reaches for my hand, I’m not sure if she is looking to follow or lead. Somehow, we end up in this collaborative journey where we guide each other to learn and grow.

I accidentally raised a leader, and she has been teaching me to lead along the way.

The only wish I have for her future is that she can continue to explore her world with curiosity and compassion. I hope she can stay this true to herself always. It warms me to think of all the people she will lean into, listening with her whole being and inspiring them to open their hearts to their world as well. Of course she’ll falter, but I think she’ll get right back in the groove, tapping out a new rhythm to communicate with her world.


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