Everyone wants to know how to raise a bright child and encourage a love of learning. Read how to raise smart children while still letting kids be kids.
I was proud, but shocked. My five-year-old’s pre-K teacher revealed my son was performing a few levels above his grade.
Genes make up a huge part of who we are, but that doesn’t mean parents are completely helpless. We can still play a big part in helping kids thrive and use their talents and skills.
The best part? It doesn’t need tons of money, the latest apps, enrichment activities or extracurricular activities. What works stems from a loving, supportive environment with a belief in his abilities.
How to raise a bright child
I realized many of the tips I’ve applied about learning encourage my son’s success in school, such as:
1. Praise effort, not innate ability
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Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence—like a gift—by praising their brains and talent. It doesn’t work, and in fact has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong. If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.
She distinguishes between praising someone’s innate abilities versus their effort. It’s the difference between “You got an ‘A’—You’re so smart!” and “You got an ‘A’—You studied hard!”
Kids who praised for innate abilities crumble when faced with challenges. They’d rather take easy tests for an ‘A’ than difficult ones for the sake of learning.
When your child does something well, don’t focus on their innate abilities (“You’re artistic!”). Or even on what you think about what they’ve done (“That’s a beautiful painting!”).
Instead, praise effort. Point out the new strategy he used to get that new texture. Or that you liked how he didn’t give up when he stumbled on a difficult part, or that he was so focused.
These are the traits well worth praising. Not that they did something fast or perfect or with no effort. Rather it’s the opposite: he succeeded with a whole lot of trying and determination.
Take it even further and explain that the brain is a muscle and can grow and change with time and effort. Being a bright child isn’t something you’re born and stuck with. The more you practice, the better you get.
2. Phrase challenge and learning as fun
My son’s attitude to homework? “Yay!” He finds the same pleasure in learning as he does with toys, going to the park and yes, doing Math worksheets.
A lot of that has to do with how we phrase learning and challenges. If he’s trying to solve a puzzle on his IQ Fit, I’ll say, “Awesome—this one’s a challenge!” Or if he speeds through a book, I’ll actually apologize and say, “Was that too easy? I’m sorry. Next time I’ll find something more interesting.”
Point is, challenge is good. School is good. And difficult things in life shouldn’t be another thing to sigh or whine about. Otherwise, when they happen (and they will), kids who can’t deal with it will give up rather than keep going.
3. Spend time talking to your child
The way we communicate can build their vocabulary and encourage critical thinking. Talking is one of the easiest ways to raise smart kids.
If your toddlers are like my twins, you’re likely hearing a lot of simple sentences. “Yummy pizza!” And if I were to respond the same way, they would have learned nothing new.
What if, instead, I responded with a more detailed sentence of what they were saying? “Yummy pizza! Seems like you liked that pizza. It’s delicious, isn’t it?” Now I introduced new words they can use in the future.
Besides speaking in regular sentences, encourage conversation with your kids. Ask them what they think about a book. Have them explain the pirate ship they drew or the rules of the game they made up. Allow them the opportunity to practice building and using words.
4. Read often—to your kids and for your own pleasure
When my eldest was a baby, one of the sure ways to calm him down from fussing was by reading books. For instance, when he’d wake up cranky from a nap, we’d have a stack of books ready to read. Or when I’d have nothing to do with him, I’d sit him on my lap and read piles of books.
We scatter books everywhere for impromptu sessions. A book is within arm’s reach anywhere in our home, and it’s one of the few things I don’t mind cluttering our space.
To further instill a habit of reading, incorporate it into your routine. Reading before naps and bedtimes ensures that kids know reading is part of their lives. Start now so they’re eager, not resistant, to reading.
And when you read, engage and interact with your kids. Besides reading the words out loud, take it a step further and ask them what they think about the story. For younger kids, describe what they point to and offer details. (“Yes, that’s the bicycle! Looks like the pig, the frog and the mouse are riding on it.”)
Make reading and books a treat, as well. For every birthday or Christmas, my husband and I give our kids a book each. We want them to look forward to getting a brand new book they can keep forever (and not return to the library).
And just as important, read yourself. You can’t convince your kids to love reading when they don’t see you doing so yourself. Even if it takes you months to read a book, start. Read for pleasure, and let them examine your book. They’ll love that everyone in the family reads, not just the kids.
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5. Embrace curiosity and questions
Embrace these seemingly ‘annoying’ questions and answer in your child’s level. Don’t wave them away as petty or insignificant—everything is new and needs explanation.
A difference my five-year-old’s teacher noticed about him is his curiosity. More than any of his other classmates, he’ll pester her with questions left and right, as he does with us at home.
Instead, answer your child’s questions. If I don’t know the answer or can’t tell right away, I write the question and promise my son to research it later.
Also, ask them what they think. And don’t label questions as good or silly. Treat their questions as matter-of-fact. They’ll engage and not hold back from asking or being curious. They won’t think a question is a “dumb” one.
Expose your kids to new experiences. Let them experience new places and people and learn that the world is a large place. I can’t travel the world with my kids yet, but I do take them to different weekend “adventures.” We hike, visit museums and the beaches.
6. Enroll your child in preschool
I’m a fan of preschool and believe kids can gain a ton of benefits from being in that environment. Already they would be learning their letters, numbers and gross and fine motor skills. They’ll learn how to interact with their peers and view school as something fun.
If you don’t enroll your kids in preschool, do what preschool teachers would be doing in a classroom. Find printables and worksheets. Conduct experiments and provide your kids with art supplies. And like I mentioned earlier, read often.
At the same time…
7. Give plenty of free play
It’s tempting to schedule your kids’ calendars with back-to-back activities. But include plenty of regular downtime as well. Over-scheduling prevents them from exploring at their pace and focusing on one activity.
For my kids, the hours after school until bedtime are perfect for open play. This is when they’ll play pirates with Lego or sit at the art table for long stretches of time doing crafts.
Let your kids explore their toys, invent games with one another or relax. Shuffling them through activities (even within your home) doesn’t let them develop focus.
8. Believe in your child’s abilities
Part of learning is giving your kids a chance—they’ll amaze you with what they can do. A four-year-old who can do two-digit addition? Yes, it can be done. Your preschooler finished a 50-piece puzzle? Yup, totally possible.
While kids can’t do everything, they can do a lot more than parents sometimes give them credit for. Let them try, even if they stumble. Let them fail and learn how to bounce back. And don’t be afraid to encourage challenge, even if you’re not sure they’ll get there just yet.
Because the best way to tell if your kid isn’t ready? When learning becomes a drag. They don’t enjoy the process, and the challenge is too difficult for them right now. When learning isn’t fun anymore but a power struggle between the two of you.
Otherwise, believe in your kids—they can do pretty amazing things.
Get more tips:
- Mindset by Carol Dweck
- How to Teach Our Kids to Embrace Mistakes
- Easy! 12 Ways to Teach Preschoolers about Money
- Small Habits, Big Results: 8 Long Term Benefits of Reading to Your Child
- Teaching Resilience and Perseverance: How to Raise Kids with Grit
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