by Alan Nelson
Dr. William Damon, Stanford University professor, author of “The Moral Child” and director of the Center for Adolescence said, “The United States is the only country that values equality to the extent it does. Even though it is a good value, values can be taken too far. When we do this, we overlook the unique abilities of individuals who are highly creative and energetic. That’s especially true of leaders.” He went on to say that it comes down to a matter of “capacity,” helping kids with greater potential to develop theirs. We debunk anything that appear elitist but as a result, diminish those who would stand out.
In the faith community, we sometimes do the same as our educator counterparts when we treat all kids alike, herding them into activities, programs and even haphazardly into service roles. When I interviewed Max Lucado for our book on developing kid leaders, he said, “One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Children are books to be read, not to be written.'” Our job as adults who interact with kids is to help them discover their unique abilities. Although experience has a way of revealing these, we cannot assume that a lack of life experience means we can’t target specific talents and capacities. There are certainly indicators of strengths, talents, capacities and wirings. Although Gallup’s Strengths Finder for kids is a good resource, I’m not convinced it is sufficiently detailed.
Those of us who work with kids in social settings can recognize certain capacities if we know what to look for and how to develop them. This is true of young leaders. One way of accomplishing this is through staff consensus. When I train school staff, I’ll describe leadership aptitude indicators. These include qualities such as being a pied piper, having a lot of opinions, potentially being bossy or disruptive in a group setting, being a good negotiator and basically being followed by other kids. Then we have the teachers divide into groups of 3-5 and list students in their classes who seem to exhibit these qualities. When there is low consensus, a student is dropped from the list. Then the groups combine a master list of names. The result is a pool of students to formally train and select from for leadership opportunities.
God loves us equally, but did not create us the same (1 Cor. 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, Exodus 18). Those with a high capacity to lead are a minority. We have a strategic, 4-year window in which we can impact the character of a child in the context of leadership, before rigor mortis sets in and change becomes far more difficult and frequently painful. Dr. Damon said, “We must teach morality to leaders young. If you wait until graduate school to teach ethics, you’ll get a lot of black humor and it goes in one ear and out the other.”
I waited nearly three months to get an appointment with Dr. Damon, meeting him in his Stanford office. I wanted to maximize the opportunity, so I wrapped up our time with a video interview, using my new Kodak webcam for a vodcast. He presented great content. But when I got home, I realized that in my unfamiliarity with my camera, I’d accidently erased the interview. I was Â so bummed.
This disappointment reminded me of how adults unfamiliar with young leader development, miss the very unique window of opportunity in the lives of young leaders. We have a four-year period, between years 10-13, to develop them while they’re still moldable in character, but cognitively mature enough to learn sophisticated social skills required for leading.
Why not take 15-20 minutes to brainstorm with your children’s ministry team, a list of young influencers, from preschool through sixth grade? Target this group for special emphasis, not because they are elite, but simply different. While we want to love kids equally, we cannot treat them the same if we are to make the greatest possible impact for the Kingdom.
Alan E. Nelson, EdD
Equal But Not The Same © 2010 Alan E. Nelson