Gone are the days of talented and gifted programs for students who just kindasortamaybe seem to have an innate ability to think faster than their classmates. Good riddance. Studies conducted over the last decade have shown that intelligence has far less to do with nature than with nurture. Given the right circumstances, the current thinking suggests, almost any child can be gifted. It’s both an encouraging finding and an added bit of pressure for parents.
Part handbook and part literature review, Great Minds and How to Grow Them is education expert Deborah Eyre’s attempt to create a modern resource for parents that contextualizes recent research and offers some prescriptive tips on how to raise smart cookies. Fatherly spoke with Eyre, who is also the founder of High Performance Learning, about how average dads can help their offspring become exceptional.
I know research says that my child’s intelligence isn’t pre-determined, but surely that’s part of it. Is it right to think of intelligence as 100 percent nurture?
That’s a more difficult question than you’d think it would be. We used to think it was primarily nature and not so much nurture, and now we think it’s predominantly nurture. It might be that we have some inherited predispositions, but they are much less significant than we thought.
What we know is that intelligence isn’t fixed, so people can get cleverer—they’re born “not made”. And what we need to concentrate on is, rather than trying to decide who is and who isn’t gifted, we need to create intelligence. From a parental point of view, we want to help our child be successful.
In one sentence, what does it take for parents to maximize their children’s intelligence?
Make sure you create good opportunities for them to learn, support them in their learning, encourage but don’t push, and try to engage them to be more motivated to achieve. That’s it, in a nutshell.
In your book, you refer to the “Three Ages of Learning.” Can you walk me through them?
This idea comes from Benjamin Bloom. He says the first bit is “playfulness”, where you’re kind of interested in something or drawn toward it. From a parental point of view, you want to watch out for what your child naturally gravitates toward, so they like playing with numbers, or music, or that sort of thing. The second stage, the “precision” stage, is learning the technical skills. How to do math, or play the piano. Finally, you get to the “originality” stage, where you’re bringing something of your own to the whole thing—you’re doing it your way, and that’s the most rewarding for all of us. In science it’s absolutely the case that the big breakthroughs come from not world-shattering ideas but from having a deep understanding of a subject and being able to work within your field with real precision, and then taking the next step. Once you’ve mastered it, you play around with it. But now you’re playing knowledgeably.
How much should I be helping my kid with homework or on class projects? I don’t want to get in the way of genius!
The first thing to remember is that it’s your child’s class project, not yours. So don’t do it for them. But on the other hand, what you really want to do is get involved and engage with it. Ask them some probing questions about what they’re thinking and what they’re doing, offer suggestions, but really support their thinking rather than imposing your own thinking. What you’re really trying to do is build the next brick in terms of their learning. If you do it for them, they’ll have a tower but they couldn’t build another one. You want to support them in such a way that the next time, they can do it without you. What you’re trying to do in the end is make yourself redundant.
Is there a way to make children think critically at home, like a behavioral shift I can make to normalize that way of thinking.
One, it’s really important to learn to stick with things. So as a parent, you’re in a hurry. And, because you’re in a hurry, you put your child’s coat on for him or her. They learn that, if I find something difficult, I can find someone else to do it for me. When what you really need, as a parent, is to let them struggle for a minute and see if they can figure it out themselves. I know when you’re busy it’s tempting to just do it for them, because it’s faster or because that makes less of a mess, but it’s really important to let them really grapple with things. They have to learn that most thing don’t come easily at first—you have to persist, and that persistence brings reward. If you require them to persist, they’ll get into that habit and it becomes a good thing. That resilience is one thing to encourage. I’m a grandma now, and I have a small nine-month-old grandchild and I was watching him trying to crawl. It’s really tempting to pick him up because he gets frustrated, but what you really need to do is judge how long can you let him keep trying until he’s really upset by it.
A second, completely different one, is curiosity. Curiosity is at the heart of, particularly, being good at science, where you look closely at why things happen. Look for opportunities to respond to their curiosity rather than shut them down. If you don’t encourage that curiosity, they do not become keen learnings. Richard Feynman wrote in his biography that one of the things his father did that encouraged him to think scientifically was to encourage him to lift up stones and look at what’s underneath them. One more thing is to think about how things link together. Say to your child “can you remember another time that happened” or when you’re reading a story “can you think of another story like this one”. What you’re trying to do is teach them to think of learning as connected rather than separate things.
And these are all things that just happen in the cut and thrust of everyday life in your household. You don’t have to pay a lot of money to do them, or create special opportunities.
How can I ensure my child get the most out of school?
Firstly, support the school. Even if you actually think what they’re doing in school [is wrong], it’s just really important to support the school. Because otherwise your child is in a position where they don’t know who to believe, their family or their school. In terms of what you can do at home to support them, try the kinds of things I’ve been talking about . When they’re doing homework, you can also ask them questions [or say things like] “oh, look at that task you’ve been given. They’re asking you to link things together! We talked about that being important.”
What is one easy change a parent can make right now to increase the chances that their kid grow up to have an exceptional mind?
If I had to pick one thing? Listen more. If you’re going to respond and help and encourage your child, you need to really listen to what they’re saying to you. In our very busy lives, we’re often only half listeners. So listen carefully. And then respond to that—respond to their interests.