How Grandparents Unlock Kids' Learning Potential

Kids are phenomenal learners. Grandparents see it when parents can't.

Posted Aug 23, 2011

Yesterday my daughters (age 6 and 3) went for a bike ride with their grandfather. I have been trying to teach the six year old how to bike without training wheels, with such disastrous results that I had given up for the summer. I would have said the chance of that she would ride home without training wheels was about 0.00%. That's exactly what she did. Saba taught her to ride. It took him seven minutes.

Saba Rides a Bike

Thus, my point: Sometimes parents underestimate what their kids can learn. And for that reason, sometimes it takes a grandparent to bring out the best in your kids.

As a cognitive psychologist, I should know better than to underestimate learning. In fact, I do research on the stability bias, which amounts to this: We think we're going to know just as much in the future as we know now. We are very bad at taking into account future learning and future forgetting.

I have a stability bias for my kids' learning: I underestimate how much they can learn if they just try something new. This bias seems to be something uniquely parental.

I don't necessarily underestimate how good my kids are at riding bikes. I underestimate is how much better they can get if they are given a chance to learn. The same is true in my research: People who are underconfident in their learning ability are often overconfident in how much they already know.

Why is it that grandparents don't suffer from the same stability bias? Maybe because they see my kids as the kids are; I see my kids as who they are now, but my image of them mixes in traces of what they were like six months ago, a year ago, and so on, because for me it's a continuous thread. Grandparents see kids intermittently, so maybe it's easier for them to reset their impression of a kid.

But I tried to teach my daughter to ride without training wheels. Why did her grandfather succeed so gloriously where I failed so miserably? Probably a lot of reasons. Mainly, he's a great teacher. (Here's a tip, by the way: Sliding training wheels up, so the bike gets more wobbly and the kid can actually practice balancing, is a good first step.) Another reason is, parent/child relationships are fraught; the last thing a kid wants to do is listen to her parents.

Another important element, though, is a (hopefully calculated) lack of caution. I've never been accused of being too safe or cautious with kids. But the thought of my little sweetie-pie riding without training wheels terrified me. Especially because there's only one way to bike without falling: fast. But scary and hard are just what the doctor ordered. Kids don't learn when things are easy-they learn from challenges. This summer, grandparents provided those challenges. (By the way, this year National Grandparents Day falls on Sept. 11.) 

When it comes to raising kids, a lot of us parents think doing it different = doing it wrong. That's why we try to tell nannies and child-care professionals how to take care of our kids. But (with some exceptions), we should be asking them what to do. They are the experts. There are a host of psychological reasons why people mistrust experts in general, not just in the context of parenting.

When my kids become parents-by which time, all adults will probably be wearing five-point harnesses in cars and listening to loud rock and roll will be outlawed for ear-safety reasons-and they don't trust me to take care of my grandkids, I guess I won't be surprised. But if I have one talent I'm proud of, I'm good at throwing kids in the air and whipping their bodies around in terrifying but fun ways. Maybe I'll be rusty and creaky by then. But I hope they let me do it, because I have learned a few things as a parent, and I haven't lost a kid yet.