Raise a Smart Kid Who Loves to Learn

How can you raise a smart child who loves to learn? Most people believe that intelligence is static; either you're smart or you're not. But it turns out that intelligence is like a muscle: it can be developed with use. What's more, if you believe that's true, your brain will get even smarter!

Photo: Autumn Sproles

Stanford researcher Carol Dweck explains that students who believe they can "get smarter" by challenging themselves are more effective learners. Students who hold the more conventional view -- that they're either smart or not, which is known as a "fixed" view of intelligence -- worry that they might look dumb if they make a mistake, so they shrink from learning anything new. 

It even turns out that when we explain to kids that they can "grow" their brains, they do. Dweck ran a now-famous experiment with junior high schoolers. In less than two hours total over an eight week time period, they taught the students concepts such as:

"Your brain is like a muscle that can be developed with exercise. Just as a baby gets smarter as it learns, so can you."

The results were nothing short of astonishing. The brain-is-a-muscle students significantly outperformed their peers in a math assessment, without any additional math teaching.

So our goal as parents is to raise kids who believe in their ability to build mental muscle.

Instead of worrying about whether they're "smart" enough, these kids know they can get smarter, just by working at it. When they have the experience that every child has while learning something new -- "This is hard; I'm not getting this, maybe I'm not that smart?" -- These kids are able to manage their anxiety, because they know that they can grow their brain by grappling with hard concepts. They become perpetual learners who can learn what they need to in new situations and are motivated and curious to learn more.

Although intelligence is often equated with scores on IQ tests, most scholars now believe that IQ tests assess only part of a person’s intelligence. Traditional IQ tests basically measure the child's retention of verbal and mathematical knowledge. Unfortunately, this limited dimension is then equated with the child's intellectual potential.

Experts also question the obsession in our culture with pushing children to read or achieve academically before kindergarten age. Toddlers and preschoolers have other, more critical work to do, from building with blocks, to playing with rhythm and color, to learning how to get along with their peers. Research shows that these activities, which children are naturally drawn to, provide the foundation for later learning, from math skills to reading. 

As Albert Einstein said, "Play is the highest form of research."

Even imaginative play, which builds self-discipline and social skills, makes a fundamental contribution to later academic success. Verbal and Logical Intelligence actually begin with talking and wondering, when kids participate in thousands of everyday conversations about life. That's why kids who are lucky enough have quality discussions with parents as toddlers and preschoolers do better as they make their way through school.

Dr. Howard Gardner describes seven different kinds of intelligence that are important in human functioning, all of which kids need an opportunity to develop:

  • Verbal Intelligence
  • Bodily / Kinesthetic Intelligence
  • Logical/Mathematical Intelligence
  • Musical Intelligence
  • Interpersonal Intelligence
  • Intrapersonal Intelligence
  • Visual / Spatial Intelligence

And of course there's a great deal of research pointing to "soft skills" or "emotional intelligence" as a critical componenet of school success. If you can't manage your impulses and use your executive function to focus, it doesn't matter what your cognitive potential is.

Our job as parents? Encourage our kids’ natural curiosity and strengths, from dancing to reading to drawing. And make sure our kids know they can choose how smart they are – it’s intellectual lifting that builds brainpower.

“In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to work in a world that no longer exists.” - Eric Hoffer

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