“Are we there yet? How much farther?”
Anyone who has traveled with children will instantly recognize these backseat inquiries. Anthony and Frances Weaver of Morehead heard them, too, as the family of five took to the highway on frequent trips.
But once the children were of school age, the parents never provided the traditional answers. Instead of telling their three children—Virginia, Harrison, and Alice—how many more hours or simply replying “We’re not far,” the couple transformed the question into a learning experience.
“We’re at mile marker 111,” they might say, “and we’re going to mile marker 137. If we are going 65 miles an hour, how much longer will it take us to get there?”
It was one of a multitude of small, simple, typically inexpensive steps that the Weavers consciously took to augment their children’s formal schooling and boost their intelligence.
“We always believed in the value of public education and the important socialization it provides,” says Anthony Weaver, “but we also believe that kids need more.”
The Weavers, therefore, peppered their kids with math problems, projects, and questions of their own. The family casually visited college campuses everywhere they went. They frequented art museums and historical sites. They used road signs as reminders to do anagrams and learn spelling. They gave each child summer projects to complete; the children loved to research the places they were going to visit so that they could be the ones in the know, telling the rest of the family about their destination. They enrolled them in piano lessons and community sports. They encouraged the children to participate in community theater.
Frances, a stay-at-home mom when the children were younger, was available for them every afternoon after school, providing a kind of dual public school/home school enrichment, reading with them, taking them to lessons, and supplementing their public school education.
And it worked. All three were valedictorian of their high school class. All three were National Merit scholars. Two of the three have graduated from college, Harrison with a 4.0 grade point average at Clemson University. The youngest, Alice, is majoring in genetics at the University of Georgia. Virginia is working on her Ph.D. in marine ecology, and Harrison just accepted a job as an actuary with Western Southern Insurance in Cincinnati.
Perhaps just as importantly, they are normal, well-adjusted young adults. Alice was named Kentucky Junior Miss in 2007. Virginia recently married and did coral reef research in Puerto Rico this summer. Harrison still loves and participates in sports. They all have a myriad of activities and friends.
The variety in their lives came by design as well.
“We felt like our children should have formal instruction and experience in academics, the arts, and athletics in addition to what they got at school,” Weaver says. “Those are the big three in our opinion. Of the arts, we emphasized music more because we are musicians and that was what we were able to get in Morehead, but all three are equally important. We were determined, for instance, that our girls be able to throw a ball and run like boys. But the main thing is to have everybody’s attention. If everyone is playing an iPod or video game, you never communicate. Children need conversation.”
Conversation is one form of connection that is the basis of building intelligence, according to Mary Jones, department chair of the Interdisciplinary Early Childhood Education Program at St. Catharine College near Springfield.
“You start raising a smart kid when you are pregnant,” Jones says. “You take care of yourself. You talk to your baby. Our brains are hard-wired for connection—a lot of love and caring. That really is the basis of building intelligence.”
To a person, the other child development experts we spoke with said the same thing: communication and connection are the underpinnings of development—intellectual, physical, and social.
Don’t get the wrong idea, though. This doesn’t all have to be serious business. Jones says she is a firm believer in honoring childhood.
“Children should play,” she says. “That’s how they learn.”
Parents should be playful, too, she says, because playful parents stimulate their children’s brains.
“Allow children to splash in the bathtub. Let them smell things and touch and listen. Talk to your baby. Sing to your baby. Music is so important in so many aspects. Take your shoes off and walk in the grass so you and your child feel the textures and touch. Love life and share it with your child.”
Most importantly, answer their questions, Jones says.
“Children have lots of curiosity,” the child development expert notes. “We do them a disservice if we don’t pay attention to their questions. Curiosity opens so many doors for them. If you don’t know the answer, say, ‘Let’s look that up together.’”
Kim Townley, associate professor of education at the University of Kentucky, says the trick is to listen to children, take your cues from them about what they are interested in, and then help them follow up on those interests.
In 1999, Townley was executive director of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development under Gov. Paul Patton, who made early childhood education one of his administration’s priorities. She led an effort to develop a 20-year plan for Kentucky known as Kids Now to help children thrive. Many of the programs from that plan have resulted in significant advances such as reductions in the number of children with spina bifida and the incidence of low-birth weight babies.
“We found that it really does take a village,” Townley says, referring to the concept that it takes a village to raise a child. “It starts with the prenatal environment and good health care. Second is the home environment. Parents really are the child’s first teacher. Third is childcare and the school environment. You have to look at the whole gamut of life. The underlying theme is improving each environment, and this continues throughout the child’s life.”
Although it may not seem an obvious link at first, providing outdoor experiences is also important to fostering intellectual development, says Marsha Maupin, director of the Child Development Lab in EcoVillage at Berea College.
“The more outdoor activities, the better,” says Maupin. “Children need exercise to develop their gross motor skills and integrate brain functioning. They need to pedal tricycles and scooters rather than ride in motorized vehicles. Let them experience water play and explore the yard for bugs. Encourage them to jump and hop.”
Maupin worries that parents are substituting organized sports for outdoor play.
“Children need to run and jump and play outside without rules,” she says. “They need the freedom to move and exercise on their own. Play is one of the most important avenues to develop themselves as a whole person. We don’t need to over-program children. Give children time for quietness and learning the value of quiet time and relaxation.”
In the end, a sense of humor may be one of the most important tools for raising smart and successful kids. Back in Morehead, Anthony Weaver laughs as he recalls a quotation he read about raising children.
The saying is attributed to John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Says Wilmot, “Before I was married I had six theories about raising children. Now I have six children and no theories.”
Weaver says as his children got older, he and Frances began to realize that all parents can do is set children on a certain path. “Lots of times, they have other ideas,” he notes, “and many of them turn out to be good.”
Their own ideas, many of them good. Perhaps that’s the ultimate goal and the ultimate definition of a successful, well-rounded kid.
PARENTS—EVERY CHILD’S FIRST TEACHER
All children have the same first and most important teacher: their parents. Here are some tips from UK professor Kim Townley (and executive director of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development under Gov. Paul Patton) on ways to get off to a good start raising successful kids.
“You don’t have to do flash cards or buy expensive toys,” says Townley. “Learning can happen within the natural routine of the day. Just listen to your children. When they express an interest in something, that’s your cue. This is time very well spent. You are developing a bond with your child and building foundational knowledge.”
- When you take laundry out of the dryer, help children learn the difference between like and different by letting them match socks.
- While putting the groceries away, build language skills by asking children to show you all the round things, or small things, or red things, etc.
- While riding in the car, point out familiar landmarks. Children can recognize icons long before they can read. When they recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s, for instance, tell them that McDonald’s starts with the same letter as mommy.
- Make routine fun by counting. When brushing their teeth, ask children to brush 10 times on the top and 10 times on the bottom. Ask them to brush slow, then fast. Good oral health is a bonus.
- Let children help pick out their own clothes. Ask them to choose something with stripes, or long sleeves, or short sleeves, then tell them why they need long sleeves or short sleeves.
- Help children cook. It takes more time, but children learn to measure and understand relationships. For example, what happens if you put pancake batter on the griddle when it’s not hot? Now what happens when it is hot? “It’s important for children to think, imagine, and experience that kind of trial and error,” Townley says.
- If they’re not ready to cook, let them help prepare food. They can butter bread, for example. This teaches them small muscle coordination.
- Let them help wash dishes or set the table. Ask questions as you go: How are forks different from spoons? While they are still learning, make a map of a table setting, so they can see the outlines and place items appropriately.
The important goal with all these activities is building a rich verbal environment and strong communication with children.
“Talk to them, reason with them,” Townley says. “Give them good examples. Help them figure out how the world works and show them it is a wonderful place to explore.”
SUCCESS AT SCHOOL
Parents can be important allies with their child’s professional educators. The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence offers a six-day training session called the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership that gives parents a good sense of what should be happening in their schools in terms of learning and instruction. It also helps parents understand different learning styles and how to work as a full partner with their child’s school to improve student learning.
“Parents have the opportunity to learn how to work with principals and teachers and other parents,” says Cindy Heine, associate executive director of the Prichard Committee. “They learn strategies for dealing with other personality types and how to look at a school’s achievement data. They learn what they can do as parents to advance the learning in their child’s school.”
Overall, Heine has several suggestions for all parents on how to help their children succeed at school:
1. Help your child build language skills even if he or she is very young. “You might assume your 1-year-old isn’t paying attention,” she says, “but he is actually absorbing all the conversation. Infants start learning the minute they are born.”
2. Read to them at an early age. Volumes of research back the importance of reading. When they are really young, use your finger to help them follow the words. This helps them get the idea that we read from left to right.
3. Provide them with lots of interesting experiences, not necessarily with expensive toys.
4. Select quality childcare and after-school programs. Learn what to look for in a quality program.
5. Get to know your child’s teachers. Form a partnership with the teacher so you are working together to help your child learn.
6. Ask questions at the beginning of the year of the teacher and principal: What do you expect to accomplish this year? How can I be helpful? Are there things I can do to volunteer? Things I can do at home?
The Prichard Committee has adapted the Institute for use with preschool children and teachers. Called Starting Strong, this workshop helps parents learn about Kentucky’s early childhood standards, what it takes to be a quality childcare center, and the kinds of things parents can do for their children to help them move along. Currently, it is being offered in Boone County, but Lutricia Woods, manager of Curriculum and Training for the Center for Parent Leadership, can provide information on how you can get the program in your county. Contact her at (606) 524-4560 or (606) 337-1453, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership and the Center for Parent Leadership, contact Bev Raimondo at (859) 233-9849 or (800) 928-2111. The Web site is www.cipl.org.
THE BIGGEST MISTAKE PARENTS MAKE
The biggest mistake parents make might surprise you.
According to Marsha Maupin, the biggest mistake is not letting children experience failure or disappointment—trying to “risk proof” their world.
Don’t eliminate a young child’s opportunities to climb trees because she might fall and hurt herself. Instead, provide support, but encourage climbing for motor and sensory integration. It will build confidence and capabilities.
“Let them experience some disappointments and the consequences of their choices. ‘You left your crayons outside in the sun. What happened? They melted. Why? Let’s see what happens when we use your old pieces of crayons to make our own crayons.’
“If you rescue them on little things, soon you will be rescuing them for bigger and bigger reasons. That is not a service to them.”
For adult advice on this subject, read John C. Maxwell’s best-selling book, Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: SUCCESSFUL KIDS ONLINE RESOURCES
For seven Web site links with lots more information on how to raise successful kids, go to Successful kids.