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How to Raise Intelligent Kids

It boils down to simple, old-fashioned truths.

Key points

  • Raising intelligent kids is simpler and more basic than many parents realize.
  • It's not about buying expensive toys, providing academic activities starting in infancy, or sending your child to an expensive school.
  • Quite the reverse—it's all about taking good care of yourself, and slowing down so you can be loving and present.
  • Do all these good things for and with your child starting from birth, or start doing them right now, wherever you are in the parenting process.
Brian Gordillo/Unsplash
Source: Brian Gordillo/Unsplash

For most of my professional life, I’ve been addressing questions relating to gifted development and education, so it’s not a surprise when I’m asked to participate in an interview on the topic of raising intelligent kids. What was a surprise, however, as I prepared for and gave a recent interview, was how little I focused on intelligence, and how much I emphasized some simple old-fashioned ideas about raising children.

Although the main focus of my research, teaching, and writing has been on giftedness, I don’t actually prize intelligence over other qualities. In fact, the attributes I value most are kindness, integrity, a sense of humour, and wisdom, none of which require a high IQ.

That being said, intelligence does matter. A curious, well-developed, and well-disciplined mind is an advantage in most human activities, from school to work to relationships. Based on current research findings on intelligence and the brain, here are my conclusions about the practical implications for parents who want to support the development of their child’s intelligence.

1. It starts with you.

Take good care of yourself so you can take good care of your child. When you let it be okay to be imperfect and welcome your mistakes as learning opportunities, you are helping your child to thrive in every way. (That’s a major theme of Imperfect Parenting: How to Build a Relationship with Your Child to Weather Any Storm, my upcoming book.)

2. Show your child bountiful love in action.

Be dependable and consistently warm. Be kind and patient. Show up.

3. Listen, really listen.

Respond to your child’s questions, pay attention to their curiosities, be present to their worries.

4. Make sure there’s lots of time for play.

Remember that play is the work of childhood, more essential to your young child’s brain development (up to at least seven years old) than time spent on stuff that looks more like academic learning. Play time is not wasted time in the process of getting smart.

5. Stimulate all your child’s senses.

From birth onward, give your child opportunities for exploration using all their senses. When they seem especially interested in something, help them find ways to learn more about that.

6. Model and teach how to manage emotions.

Emotion regulation, self-control, persistence, and perseverance, are all more important than IQ to succeed in every area of life. Teach your child relaxation techniques like mindful breathing, and make sure they have enough balance in their lives, including time in nature, and do-nothing times when they can putter and daydream.

7. Pay attention to your child’s physical development.

Ensure your child has nourishing food, enough sleep, and lots of physical exercise, preferably outdoors. All of these are important brain-builders.

8. Nurture your child’s creativity.

Not only does creativity enliven life and learning, it’s a terrific vehicle for emotional healing and self-expression.

Do all these things, starting at your child’s birth, and you’ll be nurturing their intelligence. But if your child is five or ten or fifteen and you haven’t been doing these things, that’s okay too. Recent findings on the brain show that there’s remarkable possibility and opportunity for brain change and development throughout the lifespan, by way of a mechanism called neural plasticity. From birth right into old age, the brain develops when we interact with the world, when we engage in activities we find meaningful, and when we challenge ourselves to keep learning.

Many parents are surprised to learn that the secrets of raising smart kids are so old-fashioned—love your kid, be kind and patient with them, make sure they have lots of time for play and get enough sleep—but really, it seems that brain-building and person-building are the same thing.

Being Smart About Gifted Learning is a book I've just written with Joanne Foster, in which we go into ways to support children's intelligence as it develops. For more information on similar ideas, see,

A Better Way to Support Gifted Learners

Neurodiversity and Gifted Education

Gifted Education; Losing the Racism and Elitism

Two-Eyed Seeing

References

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2021). The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired. Penguin RandomHouse.

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