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Courageous Parents, Smart Kids

New research shows how your attitude toward life can make your child smarter.

This morning, I am thinking of a simple quote by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace: "Everything depends on upbringing." In my writing, I have consistently tried to encourage parents to be intentional about their parenting. Live the way you want your child to live; model the qualities you want your child to have; treat your child the way you want others to treat him; speak to your child the way you want her to speak to herself.

The problem with this advice is that it requires a belief on the part of parents that they have control over their lives. It's all well and good to talk about what parents should do to influence their children, but if those parents don't believe that their choices matter—whether because their own parents robbed them of their self-confidence or because life has dealt them a difficult hand and they feel helpless—then my advice may fall on deaf ears.

The degree to which we believe that our choices matter and make a difference is called "locus of control." A person with an external locus of control (LOC) looks at life from the outside, almost like they were an onlooker, waiting to see what will happen next. If you ask someone with an external LOC why they got a good grade on a test, or why they lost their job, they are likely to attribute those outcomes to causes outside of their control.

Common reasons for what life brings might be fate, luck, God, chance, or powerful others. Alternately, a person with an external LOC may truly believe that life is unpredictable. They may say, "There's nothing I can do to change anything." They may feel that the world, or society, is biased against them. They may feel that their life is in God's hands, and there's no way around God's will. The point here is that an external LOC is comprised of a "hands up in the air" attitude.

In contrast, the person with an internal LOC attributes their successes and failures to their own work, effort, and talent. This person may say to himself, "The reason I got an A on that test is because I studied." Or, "The reason I didn't make the team is because I need to improve."

Notice that, when successes come, the internal LOC takes credit ("I deserve that. I worked really hard."), and the external LOC passes it off on uncontrollable sources ("The teacher likes me"; "I got lucky"; "The stars were aligned.").

When there is a failure or mistake, the external LOC has an easy excuse for why it happened ("It wasn't God's will"; "I guess it wasn't meant to be"; "This is what my life is like—it's like the fates are stacked against me."), and the internal LOC looks for reasons why the failure or mistake occurred, so that they can improve their chances for success in the future ("I guess I need to practice more"; "Next time, I'm going to practice my interview skills in the mirror"; "Time to go back to the drawing board and revisit my goals.")

How this impacts your children

According to two recent studies, a parent's internal LOC, measured at that parent's child's birth, is predictive of that child's cognition at ages 4 and 8. Specifically, parent internal LOC is related to increased IQ scores, GPA, and academic test scores. Let's pause for a minute and think about that. Your beliefs about your life are connected to your child's intelligence!

Why might this be? Let's think this through. What kinds of behaviors might you see from a parent that would affect his child's ability to reason, think about the future, or use perspective taking (some major components of intelligence)? According to the authors of these studies, there are an amazing number of answers to this question, which help make sense of the pathway from LOC to child cognitive ability:

1) Parents who believe their actions impact the future are more likely to take parenting classes before their baby is born, to read about pregnancy and parenthood, and to reflect on and communicate with others about the attitudes and strategies that they want to take when their baby arrives.

2) Parents with an internal LOC, perhaps as a result of all of the education they are pursuing about their baby, are more likely to eat healthy foods, and avoid alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes while they are pregnant. When a mother is pregnant, everything she takes into her body passes through to her fetus. Vitamins and minerals benefit mother and baby. Alcohol, drugs, and tobacco smoke act as teratogens, and poison the developing fetus in dangerous and irreversible ways.

3) Parents with an internal LOC tend to have a higher socioeconomic status (SES), which brings with it the economic resources to pay for healthcare, books, classes, and enrichment activities for their young children. People with a higher SES are also more likely to be surrounded by other people with an internal LOC, which provides opportunities to brainstorm and discuss solutions to parenting problems with other parents. In turn, having this access to other parents who are invested in intentional parenting practices, is a source of support that can help overcome life stresses and other challenges.

4) After the baby is born, mothers with an internal LOC are more likely to breastfeed, which is known to be related to higher IQs. As I've written on my website, breastfeeding passes on a tremendous number of health, social and cognitive benefits to a baby. When a mother understands this, and she is able to breastfeed, she is incentivized to offer these gifts to her baby, and in turn experience the bonding that can occur as a result of the closeness, eye contact, and nonverbal communication that accompany the breastfeeding experience.

5) As a baby grows into a child and then an adolescent, the parent with an internal LOC is more likely to use positive parenting practices that involve more consistency, responsiveness, and stimulating activity than parents with an external LOC. They are also more likely to emphasize their child's independence and autonomy, and use warmer, more emotionally secure, and communicative interactions. When a child does something noteworthy, this parent takes the time to express her pleasure and pride, and uses conversation to talk about what the child has just accomplished. When a child does something that needs correction, these parents also use conversation and discussion about why the child's behavior was not appropriate, and then models brainstorming practices to strategize what the child could do differently when he is in similar situations in the future. In short, parents with an internal LOC pass on their internal LOC to their children, by showing them how to think about the connections between their actions and the outcomes of the choices they have made.

6) The parent with an internal LOC is more likely to provide enrichment activities for their child, that expose her to new situations and require her to learn how to interact with other children and adults in prosocial ways. These activities include parent-child classes, going to the library, reading to the child, singing to the child, and arranging play times with other children.

Changing your LOC

The good news here is that people are able to switch their LOC, with introspection and hard work. If you are reading this, and you resonate with the external LOC more than the internal, I would highly encourage you to take a look at the parenting practices that the internal parents use, and then add one or two of them to your schedule this week. Even if it feels artificial at first, your child won't know. Instead, she will experience your positive regard, enjoy the time you are spending with her, and benefit from you sharing your wisdom about how to overcome obstacles. Just mimic what the internal LOC looks like, and pretty soon, you may find that your life seems more under your own control. It's a powerful feeling, to go out each day and feel confident that you can accomplish what you set out to accomplish, and to know that after you have achieved, you can pat yourself on the back and give yourself the credit for your hard work.

Your child may also gain from your decision to act more in line with an internal LOC. Longitudinal research indicates that children who grow up with an internal LOC mindset (given to them by their parents) are likely to pursue more education, delay having children, and choose romantic partners and friends who have an internal LOC. They are also more likely to have regular sleep patterns, healthy eating patterns, and to respond to frustration with proactive behaviors like communication and problem-solving thoughts, as opposed to whining, weeping, and tantrums.

It's all up to you. Truly. Your actions, words, and beliefs matter. You are the main source of information that your child has about how to think about and live in the world. Show them that they are powerful, by recognizing your own power. Teach them the importance of lifelong self-improvement, by modeling your interest in growing as a person as you get older. Show them how to be organized and efficient, by following a schedule yourself. We want strong, courageous children, who have the guts to pursue their dreams. Your strength and courage, and your pursuit, are the keys to their success. Believe it!


Nowicki, S., Iles-Caven, Y., Gregory, S., Ellis, G., & Golding, J. (2017). The Impact of Prenatal Parental Locus of Control on Children's Psychological Outcomes in Infancy and Early Childhood: A Prospective 5 Year Study. Frontiers in Psychology, 8.

Nowicki, S., Iles-Caven, Y., Gregory, S., Ellis, G., & Golding, J. (2017). The Impact of Prenatal Parental Locus of Control on Children's Psychological Outcomes in Infancy and Early Childhood: A Prospective 5 Year Study. Frontiers in Psychology, 8.