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.
Is it possible to raise smart kids without pressure and power struggles?
Absolutely. You don’t even need tons of money, the latest apps, or extracurricular activities.
Instead, what works stems from a loving, supportive environment with a belief in your child’s abilities. Simple daily interactions that make a deep impression on how he learns. And being mindful of how you phrase learning and challenges that he faces.
Genes make up a huge part of who we are, but that doesn’t mean we don’t help shape how our kids thrive and use their talents and skills.
How to raise a bright child
Wanting to raise a smart, bright child can feel awkward. On one hand, you want your kids to be at the top of the class and think differently from the rest.
But you also don’t want to be “that parent” who brings flash cards everywhere and drills her kids on math problems.
Thankfully, I’ve found that you can want the best for your child without resorting to authoritarian means to get there. No “Tiger Mom” persona that makes him resent you or strangles your relationship with him. Instead, you can encourage his success, whether in school or his developmental abilities, in simple ways.
As one parent did:
“I found these tips very useful. I own a preschool in my community, I hope to apply these tips for my own children and my pupils. Thanks.” -Helen
Take a look at how to raise a bright child, without needless pressure and stress:
1. 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. We’d have a stack of books ready to read when he’d wake up cranky from a nap. I’d sit him on my lap and read piles of books when I had no idea what else to do with him.
Reading boasts many benefits, so it’s no secret that experts recommend at least 20 minutes of reading with your child.
Scatter books everywhere for impromptu sessions so that a book is always within arm’s reach anywhere in your home. (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 your child knows reading is part of his life. Start now so he’s eager, not resistant, to reading.
When you read, engage and interact with him. Besides reading the words out loud, ask him what he thinks 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. Include a book among birthday or holiday gifts, building a library he can keep forever.
And just as importantly, read yourself. You can’t convince your child to love reading when he doesn’t see you doing so yourself. Even if it takes you months to read a book, start. Read for pleasure, and let him examine your book. He’ll love that everyone in the family reads, not just kids.
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2. Praise effort, not innate ability
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Psychologist Carol Dweck is the go-to expert on praise and effort (whom I’ve mentioned many times throughout this blog). She cites a common mistake parents make in her book, Mindset:
“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 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 his innate abilities (“You’re artistic!”). Or even share your opinion (“That’s a beautiful painting!”).
Instead, praise his effort. Point out the new strategy he used to get that new texture or that he was so focused. That he didn’t give up when he stumbled on a difficult part. That he succeeded with a whole lot of trying and determination.
These are the traits worth praising, not that they did something fast, perfectly, or with no effort.
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.
3. Phrase challenge and learning as fun
For the most part, my kids have a surprisingly positive attitude to homework and school work. They find similar pleasure in doing Math worksheets as they do with toys or going to the park.
It turns out, the way we phrase learning and challenges make a difference. If I see them struggling with a puzzle, I’ll say, “Awesome—this one’s a challenging one!” Or if they speed 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 them will give up rather than keep going.
4. Encourage your child to talk
Talking is one of the easiest ways to raise smart kids. The way you communicate can build your child’s vocabulary and encourage critical thinking.
If you have a toddler, you’re likely hearing a lot of simple sentences like “Yummy pizza!” And if you were to respond the same way (“Yummy!”), he would have learned nothing new.
What if, instead, you responded with a more detailed sentence of what he was saying? “Seems like you liked that pizza! It’s delicious, isn’t it? What’s your favorite topping?” Now you’ve introduced new words he can use in the future.
Besides speaking in regular sentences, encourage conversation. Ask him what he thinks about a book. Have him explain the pirate ship he drew or the rules of the game he made up. Allow him the opportunity to practice building and using words.
5. Embrace curiosity and questions
Does your child ask you “Why?” all the time? Embrace these seemingly “annoying” questions and answer in her level. Don’t wave them away as petty or insignificant—everything is new and needs explanation. Let her pester you with questions left and right.
Don’t label questions as good or not, either. That way, she’ll feel welcomed to ask and not hold back from being curious. She won’t think a question is a “dumb” one.
And expose her to new experiences. Let her visit new places and people and learn that the world is a large place. Even if you can’t travel the world with her yet, take her to different weekend “adventures” like hikes, museums, and beaches.
6. Enroll your child in preschool
I’m a fan of preschool and believe kids can gain many benefits from being in that environment. They would be learning their letters, numbers, and gross and fine motor skills. They’ll practice interacting with their peers and view school as something fun.
If you don’t enroll your child in preschool, mimic what preschool teachers would be doing in a classroom. Find printables and worksheets, conduct experiments, and provide her with art supplies. And like I mentioned earlier, read often throughout the day.
At the same time…
7. Give plenty of free play
It’s tempting to schedule your child’s calendar with back-to-back activities, but include plenty of downtime as well. Over-scheduling prevents her from exploring at her pace and focusing on one activity.
For my kids, the hours after school is done until bedtime is 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 child explore her toys, invent games with siblings and friends, or relax. Shuffling her through activities (even within your home) doesn’t let her develop focus.
8. Believe in your child’s abilities
Part of learning is giving your child a chance—he’ll amaze you with what he can do. A four-year-old who can do two-digit addition? Yes, it can be done. A preschooler finishing a 50-piece puzzle? Yup, totally possible.
While kids can’t do everything, they can do a lot more than we sometimes give them credit for. Let them try, even if they stumble. Be open to failure so they learn how to bounce back. And don’t be afraid to encourage challenges, even if you’re not sure they’ll get there just yet.
Because the best way to tell if your child isn’t ready? When learning becomes a drag and he doesn’t enjoy the process, and the challenge is too difficult for him right now. When learning isn’t fun anymore but a power struggle between the two of you.
Otherwise, believe in him—they can do pretty amazing things.
9. Let your child fail
“I’ll do it!”
That had been my son’s rebuff every time I tried to help him—and thank goodness, he pushed my help away.
You see, my natural instinct is to save my kids from failure. I hate seeing them flounder in their struggles, making mistake after mistake.
But then something wonderful happens when I hold back: They find ways to fix the mistake. They try a new tactic, or try another day. And they learn to deal with their frustration and bounce back when they feel down.
In other words, they learn from their mistakes.
As their “coaches,” we help them navigate through their mistakes and processes. But we shouldn’t always save them from failure or coddle their confidence. Self-esteem grows when kids feel like they’ve accomplished something, not because we did it for them.
Case in point: I was helping my 15-month-old with a shape sorter toy when I noticed he was struggling with placing the shapes into the proper holes. So, I “helped” him out: I stuck the shape in the hole so all he did was push it in.
Not exactly the learning moment he could have had. Because soon after, every time he couldn’t push a shape in, he’d hand it to me so I could do it for him again.
What should I have done?
I should have just let him struggle through it, even if it meant he’d never get a single shape through any time soon. I could’ve showed him the bigger hole where he could fit the shape in a little better, or “sportscast” his actions: “This one looks tough, doesn’t it?”
And that’s what I eventually did. I stopped putting the shapes in the holes for him, and of course, he struggled and even gave up after a few tries. Then a few days later, he went back to it, and wouldn’t you know… he figured it out.
Wanting to raise a smart, bright child isn’t something to be sheepish about. We all want our kids to succeed and enjoy the process of learning. Thankfully, it’s possible to do just that without pressure and stress.
To start, read regularly—with your child and for your own leisure. Praise his effort and perseverance, not perfection, speed, or innate abilities. Phrase challenges as fun, not something to dread or shy away from. Encourage and expound on conversation, as well as his curiosity and questions.
If he’s young and you’re able to, enroll him in preschool (or mimic preschool activities at home). Carve plenty of downtime in his day, and believe in his abilities. And finally, let him experience failure, so that he knows he can always get himself back up again.
You can learn how to raise a bright child, all without the latest apps and extracurricular activities.
Get more tips:
- Fine Motor Skills for 6 Year Olds
- 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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