Cardboard Leadership


A couple of weeks ago, my daughter Elise’s preschool sent her home with a big assignment: all the three- and four-year-olds had to transform a cardboard box into a car. Then, last week, all the students brought their cars to school and raced them in a big grand prix. I knew what I was going to see at the grand prix, and yet I still wasn’t prepared for it. Here’s what I mean …

When it came to designing and constructing Elise’s car, my wife Annie and I made a conscious decision: we were going to let her take the lead. Our primary interest, as far as this project was concerned, was Elise’s development and learning experience. (At this point I should probably mention that Annie is a certified teacher and a longtime practitioner of child development theory.) But what I saw when I attended the grand prix was that we were among the few parents who felt that way.

The other parents — as we suspected they might — appeared to have entered into a competition to see which adult could deliver the most impressive cardboard automobile. There were Batmobiles, princess carriages, sharks-on-wheels, and blinking lights. But there wasn’t any self-expression on the part of the kids. Our daughter’s car bore the telltale signs of unsteady hands, haphazard spacing, and an underdeveloped eye for color. Our daughter experienced the joy and frustration of a blank canvas.

A lot of the kids were pleased with what their parents made for them; our daughter was proud of what she’d made.

I’m far from being a model parent. Just ask Elise — she’ll tell you the truth. But I think I’m learning something about what it means to be both a parent and a leader. See, it’s always easier for me to do an art project myself — to sketch the princess, to build the castle, to color in the lines, to cut out the shape, to tape the pieces together — but my daughter will never grow into an artist that way.

It’s not enough for her to observe art being made or to receive art that has been made. She’s got to do some making herself. I’m learning that teaching and leadership aren’t the easiest ways to deliver a project, but they are the most formative for Elise.

If I’m truly interested in that which is most beneficial and transformative for Elise, I’ll commit to doing things the hard way. I’ll grimace as she stumbles and slips, but I’ll bite my tongue because she needs the practice. I’ll let her get her reps. I’ll also be content to show up at a preschool grand prix with a ramshackle racer covered in enough glitter to choke an elephant. I’ll stride past the row of cars that look like they were built by Audi’s cardboard design division and take my seat.

As the preschool director screams, “Start your engines!” I’ll smile — not at what I built, but who she’s becoming.

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