Good Students are Made, Not Born

Laura Markham's picture

Read More of Dr. Laura's Parenting Tips

Why does being a good student matter? Most important, quality of life. People who learn to think, who read great books, who understand something about the natural and scientific and political worlds, have richer lives, make better decisions, and -- studies consistently show -- are happier.

But there is another reason: Money. In the past forty years America has effectively segregated itself into two societies, and those without college degrees are in ever worsening economic straits.

Helping your child develop his intellect to the best of his ability is certainly not everything, but it is undoubtedly something most of us want for our children. And while most kids aren't geniuses, every child can develop a love of learning.

Some ideas you might consider to encourage your child's budding intelligence:

  1. Intellectual exploration begins with physical exploration. A baby who is told "No" as he explores his world learns not to question. A toddler who is constantly curtailed from climbing higher (rather than simply being spotted for safety) won't become an explorer, either physically or mentally. The more you say "no" to a baby, the more her inner world will be filled with limitations, and the lower her IQ will be.
    (Think she needs to learn limits, develop inner controls? She does. Just as she needs to develop inner controls over her bladder. And on approximately the same timetable.)

  2. Select age appropriate toys. The best are those that can be used creatively in many ways rather than preset games. The classics are still the best: Blocks, paints, clay, puppets, dolls, stuffed animals, vehicles. Encourage free play, not structured play, which exercises the mind and imagination, letting him lay down new neural pathways.

  3. Encourage experimentation. Children are natural scientists, and they learn by doing. They experiment just to see what happens. You know that the egg will break if you drop it on the floor, but what self-respecting toddler doesn't want to try it for herself? Be patient. Tolerate a certain amount of mess. (And of course you'll also have to tolerate their efforts to help clean it up, which can make things worse but are an important beginning to competence and responsibility).

  4. Emotional development and excitement about learning is more important than academics for young children. In the end, your child's ability to do well in school will depend less on when she memorizes her ABCs and more on emotional development, such as her ability to manage frustration in order to tackle new challenges. Your child's primary work in the toddlerhood and preschool years is to develop a healthy emotional life and an excited curiosity about the world, not to learn to read. If she loves being read to by the time she begins first grade, she'll be a reader halfway through the year.

  5. Don't test your youngster, and don't let Grandma do it. It doesn't matter if you're quizzing a toddler about what color the cars are, or a preschooler on what the stop sign says; if they don't know the answer they'll feel like they should. Quizzing tends to escalate through all the right answers ("Wow, he knows all the primary colors at the age of 18 months!") until the child is stumped ("No, that's TURQUOISE!"), and then even the smartest child will feel dumb. That self-doubt can last for the rest of his life, no matter how smart he is.

  6. Inspire questions rather than overloading them with facts. It's true that every interaction with your child is a teachable moment, but think twice about what you're teaching. For instance, on a nature walk, marvel together at the mysteries of nature, but resist the temptation to label every living thing and reduce your walk to a science lesson.

    Inspire wonder about the joy and beauty of nature; help them voice their own questions and theories. Notice the patterns of frost on the car, the changes in the moon, the way the hummingbird hovers. Facts are secondary at best, at worst they're a complete distraction from the magic of life. That magic is what will inspire her to want to learn more facts.

  7. Once your child starts school, set up a place and time for her to do her homework, in the same room with you. If she develops the habit of working at a desk with all her books and supplies handy, she'll be much more focused. And this gives her a structure to master the developmental task of sitting herself down to tackle an unpleasant task.

  8. Care about the details of his schoolwork. The single most important factor in school success (as long as your child has intelligence within the normal range and no learning disabilities) is whether there is a parent at home who is interested in the child's schoolwork. Someone who knows basically what is happening in all his subjects, and what he is working on, every night, for homework. Being interested in the report card isn't good enough -- kids need help to stay focused during the game itself, not just lectures when their scorecard falls short.

  9. Help him manage his homework, don't do it for him. It's not true that you don't need to be involved in homework; you do. But the parent's job is to provide structure, not answers. You're not the teacher, so you aren't evaluating the work. But you are helping her to manage getting it done. Your goal is to help your child to internalize good study habits. How should he go about learning spelling words? How should she write a rough draft and revise it? How does one manage a project that needs to be worked on over a period of time?

    In first grade your role might be to actually help him figure out the answers to his math problems, by fourth grade you may find that all you need to do is quiz him on his times tables before the test.

Dr. Laura Markham