Expanding Young Minds

Fostering learning at home.

All parents want their children to succeed in school. But badgering kids to do their homework and study for tests doesn’t lead to a love of learning. How can you foster learning at home? Psychologists have determined that the following three actions promote lifelong learning.

1. Make your home information-rich.

Studies show that knowledge about the world and vocabulary helps students in all school subjects. This does not mean that you should drill children with facts. Consider that people learn many things, such as current events and even movie plots, without trying to memorize them. If your home offers an interesting environment that is rife with information, then your children should learn without being pushed.

Because you as the parent are an integral part of your child’s world, a wonderful way to build knowledge is by talking with your child. Realize, however, that listening to your child is just as important as talking. While a parent naturally knows more than a child, listening keeps the interaction from becoming simple teaching and models how mature individuals converse. Besides, older children may lose patience when adults gab on about something, factual or otherwise, without letting the child get in a word or opinion.

Studies show that books, including preschool books, are unparalleled regarding the breadth of vocabulary and the complexity that they offer kids. Preschoolers generally enjoy listening to books. If your older child doesn’t care much for reading, first be sure that he or she doesn’t have a reading disorder. (Discuss the possibility with your child’s teacher.) If that is not the case, consult with the school librarian for reading suggestions. You might also try audio books to encourage your child to enjoy literature.

In aiming to make your home information-rich, limit the number of activities that don’t contribute to this goal. Television and video games often hinder how children process information around them. If you don’t opt to eliminate TV and video games altogether, consider setting a daily time limit for recreational use.

2. Model an inquisitive attitude.

In order to foster learning, it’s crucial that your children observe that you do what you want them to do. Toddlers perceive that their parents’ behavior represents what adults do. Older children understand that different families have different values and do different things; the message they get from their parents’ behavior is “This is what we do in our family.”

Obviously, your children should see that you read books and newspapers, and that you are not glued to the television. More generally, it’s good to show your children that you are curious and enjoy learning new things.

Regularly maintained routines involving learning can become family traditions that speak volumes to your children. Perhaps keep a dictionary in the kitchen, allowing you to easily look up an unfamiliar word. Read the Sunday newspaper with your kids, sharing interesting bits as you find them. Visit a zoo on the first day of spring each year and don’t just look at the exhibits— read the information placards. Show your children that you are continuously looking for ways to learn and grow.

3.Tell your children that they can get smarter.

Many people believe that intelligence is a product of genetics: Lucky people are born smart and unlucky people are not. In this view, intelligence is as fixed as eye color.

This belief has destructive consequences. If you thought it were impossible to influence intelligence, then you would want other people to regard you as smart. To ensure that others see you as smart, you would likely seek out easy tasks to appear successful. But a student doesn’t learn much from easy tasks. We learn a great deal more from difficult tasks, even if we initially fail.

In contrast, if you believe that intelligence can be changed, failure is not threatening; it says little about something innate to you. Failure is merely a sign that you haven’t worked hard enough yet, and you can change that. You can always work harder. 

In the last ten years or so, scientists have come to the conclusion that intelligence is, indeed, changeable. Sustained hard work actually makes a person smarter. Make sure your children know this is a fact. You can also contribute to this attitude by praising children’s efforts, rather than their abilities. If your child succeeds, it’s better to say “Great! Your hard work really paid off!” rather than “Great! You’re so smart!” The latter carries the message that the child succeeded because of something he or she is— intelligent, a fixed quality— rather than something the child did— work hard, something under the child’s control.

Of the three, this last strategy is the most important. The child who believes he or she can always become smarter truly becomes a lifelong learner.