Emma Gonzalez and other students in Parkland, Florida, have turned their grief into activism. Here's how you can inspire your child to become a leader, too.

By Katie Hurley
Updated February 26, 2018
How to Raise a Kid Who Stands Up for What She Believes In
Credit: RichVintage/Getty

In the aftermath of the horrifying school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students have turned their grief into activism. They've rallied support from coast to coast to propel calls for action into meaningful change. They've spoken at rallies, given dozens of interviews, participated in a CNN town hall, visited the Florida State Capitol and the White House, racked up hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, and launched their #NeverAgain movement into the national spotlight. And they’re just getting started.

The desire to speak out and work toward change is likely helping these teens cope with unspeakable tragedy, but it’s also inspiring hope and action among the rest of us. They aren’t afraid to use their voices and, in doing so, they inspire us to use ours.

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie credited the school district’s system-wide debate program with empowering students to speak with poise in these interviews. Every public high school and middle school in the county (along with more than two dozen elementary schools) has a debate program. These students learn to research and debate two sides of an argument from an early age. They learn to stand up for what they believe in.

Research shows that leadership skills are roughly 30 percent genetic, and 70 percent attributable to lessons learned through life experience. We all want our children to have the confidence to become leaders. To do that, we have to prioritize leadership and assertiveness skills. Their path to leadership begins at home.

The good news about guiding young children toward a lifetime of leadership is that it’s the little things we do at home that make a big difference in how our children internalize their capabilities.

1. Practice speaking up.

From the moment kids learn how to speak, we teach them how to be quiet. What we need to teach them is how to speak up. Empower your kids to use their voices by practicing assertive communication skills in your home and in the community. Avoid the urge to answer questions or place orders on behalf of your kids. Even the so-called quiet kids can learn to amplify their voices by making eye contact, using a calm and clear voice, and standing tall. Use role plays to practice speaking up across a wide variety of contexts.

2. Support risk and failure.

Parents have a natural instinct to protect their kids from failure and harm (both physical and emotional,) but attempting to pave a smooth road to success doesn’t help our kids learn to navigate the murky waters of growing up and learning to lead. The best thing we can do for our kids is encourage healthy risk taking and stand by with emotional support when failure does occur. Our kids gain resilience and problem-solving skills when they face failure. Let them work through it.

3. Avoid the achievement trap.

Parents become invested in the idea that individual achievement breeds future success, but this hyper-focus on the individual does nothing to teach leadership skills. When kids focus on awards, grades, and rewards, they miss an important life lesson: All great leaders surround themselves with great people. It takes a team to impact meaningful change in the world. So teach your child to build a supportive community by engaging with others, practicing empathy and compassion, and focusing on the greater good. When kids learn to pool their talents and resources, they reach a little bit higher as a whole.

4. Focus on emotional intelligence.

Kids need to understand emotions to tap into empathy and compassion. When you teach kids how to identify and verbalize their feelings, you not only teach them how to cope with their own emotions, but also how to recognize how others might be feeling. Give your children the space to vent their negative emotions. Help them label how they’re feeling, talk about what might have triggered that feeling, and brainstorm coping strategies to work through it.

5. Build intrinsic motivation.

To raise kids who stand up for their beliefs, we have to focus on intrinsic motivation. Young children often complete tasks to earn rewards (praise, high grades, trophies) or to avoid punishment (poor grades, negative feedback.) Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is motivated by internal rewards. To guide kids toward this, we need to allow for plenty of autonomy. When kids are empowered to make their own decisions and solve their own problems, they take ownership of the outcome. They are motivated to complete their tasks to the best of their abilities.

6. Practice negotiation.

If you want your child to speak up, you have to teach them how to negotiate. Encouraging persuasive arguments in your home actually teaches your children to listen to and learn from a different point of view. It also gives your child the opportunity to speak up in a safe environment. The more you practice this at home, the better prepared your child is when she confronts injustice out in the world.

7. Model it.

Yes, this age-old parenting wisdom continues to hold up today. One of the best ways to raise kids who stand up for what they believe in is to show them how it’s done. Talk about it. Model it. Practice it as a family. Your kids are watching, make sure you give them a good show.

What the Parkland students continue to teach us is that our voices are amplified when we come together as one, and we do have the power to make a difference in this world. Resist the urge to hide this important lesson from your kids because it was born from tragedy. Tell this story to show your children that even in moments of great darkness, we can always find the light.