It goes without saying that we want our kids to be happy. We want them to feel secure, to feel free to express themselves and to build loving relationships with people.
But we’d be lying if we said we didn’t care if they were smart or not. Of course, we would want our children to be smart – and by smart we mean to have their own opinions, to value education, to have enquiring minds and to be emotionally intelligent. Not just to be a spelling bee champ or human calculator – although both of those gifts are going to be useful in the extreme, let’s face it.
But how to do it? How to encourage your kids to embrace learning without stifling them? How to coax them into cleverness without making them feel pressured or resentful? Herewith, we have the answers.
1. You need to be present.
In order to get a child interested in doing anything you must do it with them. You can’t just lob the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle at them or a lift-the-flap book and say “go figure”.
Your toddler needs to feel a sense of togetherness when he or she learns.
A love of learning comes from doing it together
“The love of learning comes directly from the adults who care for the child,” says Meryl Williams, an educational consultant based in Brighton. “It is co-constructed within the context of a meaningful relationship. It cannot be done by proxy – via TV or digital tools alone – or extended simply by exposure, for example repeatedly showing a child flashcards of sounds or words.
“Love of learning emerges from the enjoyment of doing together and in the case of toddlers with the guidance of a sensitive and attuned adult.”
2. You need to lead by example.
From the very beginning, what you do, is what they learn. This is scary but also a great reminder to keep your own bad habits in check, as anyone whose child has echoed a curse word will attest to.
Show todders that failure is an opportunity to try again
“Children can learn a great deal by observation, in addition to learning through action,” says Rebecca Webb, Education Lecturer at University of Sussex. “They are inspired to take risks in their own learning when they see parents and carers acting in different ways to develop new ideas – this might be through laughing, dancing, singing, playing, talking and socialising. By commenting on their own choices and discoveries, adults can make the learning process explicit for the child through language.
“By demonstrating a willingness to ‘have a go’ and showing persistence, through facial expression and body language, adults convey the message to toddlers that failure is just a second opportunity to do something again, like knocking down and then re-building towers!”
3. Play is key.
For toddlers, work and play are not opposites. In fact, they are the same thing.
Kids exploring through play is an education in itself
“Play is how toddlers learn and within play they are free to pretend that one object represents another and in this way explore the multiple possibilities of the world around,” says Webb. “For example, the cardboard box becomes a house, a cave, a ship, a kennel depending on the child’s desire.
“The role the adult plays is in extending enthusiastically the play and fleshing it out with language, action, and other props.”
A lot of first time parents worry about what they should be doing for their toddlers. Are they stimulated enough? Are their toys educational enough? Should they be doing classes? But the truth is that allowing a child to explore through play is an education in itself.
4. Work on your marriage.
Demonstrating to your child that you and your partner are in a loving, secure and respectful relationship is to help them perform better intellectually.
Kids pick up on everything… terrifying but true
Studies show that children whose parents have serious marital conflicts perform worse academically.
Make sure you focus on your marriage. Say I love you. Hug and kiss. Laugh together. Try to keep disagreements out of your children’s earshot. They pick up on everything which is terrifying but all too true. A conflict-filled home is not going to provide the best backdrop for confident learning.
5. TV is not evil.
This will be music to the ears to every parent who has been known to look to the Digital Nanny when they are in a bind – emails which require full attention, a leak in the roof, five minutes without someone asking you if sausage dogs are made of sausage or just “why?” over and over again.
Watching TV together can be a bonding activity
TV is evil and when used mindfully – this does not mean all day long, as a backdrop to family life and with no regard for content – it is not going to do your child untold damage.
“TV is a second-hand experience and, therefore, impacts the child in fewer planes,” explains Webb, when asked if watching television really is ‘bad’ for children. “However, it has the potential to inspire and it’s a ‘tool’ to be used knowledgeably and mindfully. Watching TV with your child can be a warm, bonding activity filled with shared excitement and discussion.”
Pass the popcorn!
6. Take your time.
Patience might be a virtue but that doesn’t mean we have any of the stuff. However, one of the most damaging things a parent can do when it comes to their toddler learning is to rush them.
Toddlers need time to do the same thing over and over again
Life might be moving at a glacial pace, buses will be missed and your days will have a slower rhythm to them but this is ideal, fertile ground for education. Time is essential for young children to refine their skills.
“Learning takes time – lots of it – and children need to be allowed to do it for themselves, which is why we hear them say ‘me do it, me do it!’” says Williams. “Toddlers also need lots of time for endless repetition – to keep reading that nursery rhyme book over and over again, to keep being chased around that tree in the park.
“Toddlers benefit greatly when adults sustain interest in their activities. This validates their learning efforts which fosters a love of learning.”
7. No ‘working mother’ guilt.
In fact, findings from Harvard Business School showed that women with mothers who had jobs outside of the home were more likely to have careers themselves and these careers were more likely to entail supervisory roles and earn them higher wages than women whose with stay at home mothers. Sons of women who had careers are more likely to help around the home. These findings held true in 24 countries.
So let this be the end of the narrative that suggests having a successful career and being a good mother is a myth.
8. Allow them to take risks.
Risk taking is a hugely valuable part of learning. But in order to take risks a child needs to feel secure.
Your job as a parent is to love and accept them – freeing them up to be daring and experimental.
“Parents and carers need to do everything in their power to enable children to be fearless and committed to a trial and error approach in all they try and do,” says Webb. “Sometimes the adult role is to be active and sometimes it is a question of sitting quietly by and supporting with your comforting presence.”
9. Don’t forget about emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence, an umbrella term which incorporates empathy and self-awareness among other things, should never be overlooked in favour of more academic pursuits.
Plenty of adults struggle with emotional intelligence too
Strong emotional intelligence is also about honing good social skills: politeness, courtesy, helpfulness and the ability to communicate calmly.
Children who are taught to master these skills are more likely to earn a college degree and have a permanent job by 25, according to a study by Pennsylvania State University and Duke University.
These skills do not always come easily to children (and plenty of adults struggle too). A good motto to live by might be that “all feelings are legitimate but not all behaviours are”. This is a clear message that older children will learn to grasp.
10. Expensive toys are not always the best toys.
We know, we know. You’ve been told this a million times. But it doesn’t stop parents from wanting to splurge on the newest, shiniest, biggest and best swag for their kids.
Even though experience has told us that it will be discarded within minutes in favour of mud. Or sand. Or the cardboard from inside the toilet paper. Or pans filled with water. Why?
“Children need experience really early on of open-ended, transformable materials – objects and substances that can be used to represent various things in different play situations – whether these be saucepans in the kitchen, soapy washing up water, dough, clothes pegs,” says Williams.
“This goes hand-in-hand with appreciating that there are multiple perspectives, and multiple ways in which to play and learn. This fearless multiplicity is a core quality of a toddler who loves learning.”