I’m privileged to teach an upper-level psychology course to juniors and seniors at our state university. Their grades are good to great. They have chosen majors, taken advantage of internship opportunities, and started to build solid resumes of work experiences in their fields. They’ve set their sights on jobs or graduate programs as their next step. These are the kids who are making it.
They are by no means a uniform bunch. They come from every possible family configuration; every economic class; and every kind of community and neighborhood. For some, English is their second or third language. Some have learning disabilities. Some have led lives of ease with every advantage. Others have come up through tough circumstances and traumatizing experiences.
So what accounts for the group’s high academic standing? What has separated these kids from their less successful peers? I’ve only found one common experience among them: parents (or another very significant adult) who cared about their education and who modeled a lifelong interest in learning. Both are important. “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t cut it when it comes to raising kids who do well in school. Being a role model matters. It matters more than financial advantages, more than the kind of schools a kid attends, even more than your child’s innate intelligence.
Oh, sure, there is the occasional remarkable young person who, in spite of an intellectually barren childhood, figures out on his or her own that education is the key to a better life. But most of the stellar students have grown up with adults who themselves keep learning as surely as they keep breathing.
The path to being a college honors student starts in toddlerhood. Here are some of the ways that parents of those good students set (and keep) their children going in the right direction:
- Talk to your child, even when your child is too young to have a conversation. Talk to the other members of the family. Talk about what you did with your day. Talk about things you think will interest others. Keep on talking. Children who do well are kids who are immersed in language from day one.
- Read to your child every day. A few minutes at a time, several times a day is fine for toddlers; half an hour or more for elementary kids. Talk together about what you read. Just as important: Keep reading yourself. Always have a book in progress next to your bed or bookmarked in the kitchen. Bring books along for your child and for yourself whenever you’re going somewhere where you will have to wait. Give books as gifts and signal that it is the best present a person can receive. Kids who grow up with parents who enjoy reading see books as an important part of adult life.
- Find ways to show your child that getting the most education you can is a family value. Talk about it. Show your pride and pleasure with their efforts. Make sure your kids also see you engaged in learning. Work on word puzzles or Suduko. Perfect a hobby. Sign up for classes. It doesn’t matter if it’s learning the tango or Shakespeare or woodworking. What matters is that you’re excited about improving an old skill or learning a new one.
- Over half of being successful is showing up. Set a goal for the kids for perfect attendance at school except when sick. Develop family routines that get kids to school every day and on time. Show enthusiasm for getting to your own job every day too. Take pride in your attendance record at work.
- Monitor homework. Set a time and a place for homework to be done. Be curious about what your child is studying. Ask him to teach you what he is learning. Praise effort. Help when he’s stuck if you can but don’t do it for him. Kids need to claim their accomplishments as their own. While the kids are doing their homework, also do some of your own. Join them at the kitchen table and work on bills or other paperwork. Read the newspaper or a news magazine. Use the family computer to write letters or check the news or research a topic.
- Show your child how to use the Internet to get information. Make a game out of finding out all you can about a topic that interests her. Help her understand how to sort out the good from the trash. If you don’t have a computer at home, show her how to access the ones at the library or a local community center. Use the Internet responsibly yourself. Maintain a balance between time at the computer, time pursuing other interests, and time interacting with the family.
- Encourage your child to try new things and to explore the world. Go for walks. Make family outings to new places. Take advantage of local museums, exhibits, and shows that are geared to kids. If you truly enjoy educational events, the kids will too.
- Don’t insist that your child be the best student in the class. Do insist that she do the best she can. Emphasize the importance of the process of learning, of trying new things, of being persistent when something is difficult. Show them by example. Share stories about when you’ve done well as a team player on the job. Not everyone can be the valedictorian of the graduating class or the star of the company. But everyone can do his or her personal best.