If you want to encourage your kids to be comfortable and secure, able to lead the pack instead of following it, what should you do?

Your first impulse might be to sign them up for the Scouts, say, or a local sports league, something that gives kids early experience with leading others. Maybe you'd advocate a little more of a hands-off parenting style, giving your kids room to experiment--and even fail sometimes--so they learn to be independent and solve their own problems. Maybe you'd suggest modeling leadership yourself.

All these ideas have merit and may be the perfect plan for certain ages and certain kids, but according to a fascinating recent DealBook article in The New York Times by Tony Schwartz, the most important parental intervention to boost your kids' chances of being a leader starts earlier and is more fundamental than any of these ideas.

More hugs, not more knocks

The main argument of Schwartz's piece is that America really needs to get its act together and change its laughably horrible parental leave laws (only the U.S., Papua New Guinea, and Suriname offer no guaranteed paid leave at all). What does that have to do with raising kids who are confident enough for leadership? A lot, research says.

What makes kids strong enough to follow their inner vision isn't being captain of the football team or any other such role, science suggests (though no one's knocking those experiences); it's having lots of warm, caring time with their parents early in their lives--in essence more hugs, not more knocks, are likely to make your kid a leader.

It's all about security, Schwartz explains. "Thanks to the work of researchers such as John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, we know a great deal about how critical it is for each of us to build a basic level of trust and secure attachment with our primary caregivers early in our lives," he writes. "The more reliably children receive love, comfort, support, and soothing from their primary caregivers--still most commonly their mothers--the more secure, healthy, and effective they become in their lives." 

Of course, that doesn't mean that moms need to stay home if they want to raise resilient and self-possessed kids. It means that sensible laws that give the whole family the flexibility to build these bonds would be a great step toward helping our kids grow up secure and ready to lead.

"Research suggests that working parents who get paid leave when their children are born tend to build better bonds with them over time," Schwartz writes. On the flip side, "men, who are neither permitted nor encouraged to take parental leave, end up deprived of the early level of bonding that could help them become better fathers by building more capacity for caregiving, empathy, vulnerability, attunement, and emotional connection ... increasingly critical qualities for leaders operating in a highly networked global economy."

Schwartz is explicit about the political takeaway of his argument--we need guaranteed paid parental leave--but sadly, that's not up to us (though business owners can do plenty to improve things for parents). In the absence of action by politicians, is there something parents can learn from Schwartz's article? Perhaps simply that security, face time, and plenty of love aren't just an excellent (if obvious) way to make your kids happy. Paradoxically, over the long-term those tight bonds will actually make your kids more independent and leadership ready, too. So if you were ever in doubt, hug away.

Published on: Nov 10, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.