Articles about how to raise smart kids often focus on exposing them to music, the arts, or STEM. However, there are many things parents can do every day to help their children develop their thinking skills.
This post focuses on how to raise a child to be a good problem-solver. How you talk to your child can play a huge role in developing their thinking processes and their capacity to manage themselves well. Strategies for younger and older kids are included.
1. Articulate your thought processes for getting things done.
When you're doing a task, describe your thought processes out loud. Explain how you're going about it and why.
For example, if you're preparing to bake cookies, then you might say to your child, "I'm getting out all the ingredients in the recipe before we start. That way, we can make sure we have everything."
Or, you might say, "Before I put them in the oven, I'm going to re-check the recipe to make sure I've remembered the correct temperature."
Don't go overboard with this strategy or your child might start to tune you out. If you use this approach in moderation, your child will pick up on strategies for tackling tasks well. This can happen even if they don't seem to be paying attention to you.
Look for activities you can do with your child that will help you teach your child how to take a methodological approach to tasks. Cooking or crafting together are good options.
Show your kids intellectual humility and flexibility. Explain when you're updating your viewpoint based on new information. Explain when you realize what you've previously overlooked and change your mind.
2. Help them learn mental models.
Mental models are general principles people use to explain and understand a lot of everyday things.
With older kids, you can start sowing the seeds for them to begin to think in mental models.
- For example, you can introduce the idea of opportunity cost. It's not that spending hours playing video games is necessarily bad, it's that you then miss out on the other things you like to do.
- Or, take compounding. A kid who works on their reading will experience compounded benefits. Learning everything else will become easier.
- Or, confirmation bias. A kid might decide they don't like one particular cousin. Then they find everything about that cousin annoying because they're looking out for that.
You can articulate all sorts of problem-solving strategies for kids. For example, you might narrate how you prioritize. Teach them the 80/20 rule, without necessarily articulating it.
- "We can't spend $100 on supplies for your dream version of your school project. How can we spend $20 and make it almost as great? What are the most important elements?"
- Or, "We don't have time to clean the whole house before Grandma comes over. What are the most important things we need to do?"
Kids don't have the same capacity to think abstractly as adults do. Their brains aren't fully ready for that. You can pay attention to how that capacity is developing for them. As it does, help them learn to transfer knowledge across many problems. A person's capacity to transfer knowledge between different domains is incredibly important for success and innovation.
Here's a great list of mental models. As a bonus, if you model using these to your kids, you'll get better at it too.
3. Name specific strategies.
As kids, my sisters and I were always asking our mom to help us find items we'd lost. She'd tell us to "retrace our steps." I still hear my mother's voice whenever I use this strategy.
If you give strategies a catchy name and use that name often, it'll be easier for your child to remember to use it.
4. Teach them to use estimation.
Help your kiddo learn to use estimation. Help them learn to break down tasks and estimate how long each will take. Help them learn to estimate the value of different actions.
- If they have a choice between buying two games with their pocket money, one that is $10 and one that is $20, do they think they'll get twice the fun out of the more expensive one?
- If they have a choice between two ways to raise money for a school trip, can they estimate which will be more lucrative for the time invested?
- If they spend 15 minutes practicing their Spanish every day, how many words will they know in a year? If they practice once a week, how long will it take to learn the same number?
5. Show your child how you manage your emotions.
It's often harmful to expose kids to adult problems. However, there are still many situations in which you can clue your kids in about how you are managing your emotions.
For example, if you feel anxious about a long list of everything you need to do, show them how prioritizing or accepting imperfection helps you manage that. If you feel embarrassed because of a small mistake, show them how you manage that. How do you put it right despite your embarrassment? If you go for a run after work to relieve your work stress and help you switch off, it's ok for them to know that's why.
Name specific emotions in conversations. Also, name the strategies you're using to manage them. Do take care not to introduce new worries to your kids, especially if they're anxiety-prone.
6. Show your child how to use negative emotions to help stick to a task.
- If someone underestimates you, you might use your anger over that to propel your achievement.
- If you're worried, you might use that to fuel your dedication to doing a task carefully.
If your child is struggling with negative emotions related to a task, help them identify what those specific emotions are, and how they could use those emotions to increase their focus.
There are plenty of young adults who struggle with thinking independently, planning tasks, solving problems, and managing their emotions. Whatever age your child is, you can help them learn these skills. This can happen just through the conversations you have and everyday tasks you do together. These types of transferable thinking skills are likely more important to their success than any specific extracurricular activity, etc.