Turns out my genes of brilliance may not be the only factor. Welcome to PG, where today we investigate new research exploring what actually helps make our children become intelligent. When my oldest daughter graduated from infancy, we immediately started obsessing and overanalyzing every aspect of our parenting to ensure we were putting our little girl on the fast track to a Harvard scholarship and lifetime success. Never mind that this was at a time when she was stuffing untouched rolls of toilet paper into her mouth and being flabbergasted by a single glimpse into a mirror; still, it was time for us to allow her genius to shine. We talked letters, we read books, we sang educational songs, and anything else we could think of to brainwash our little rugrat into early stardom. We can blame this now on the overzealous doting of new parents, but it does raise the issue of early childhood education and what we can do as parents to help our kids develop. I taught my daughter at 2 years old to recite all the presidents before realizing that it wasn’t actual knowledge but rather my loving daughter entranced with daddy’s repetitive whispers of a list of names (don’t worry, I’ve backed off on my insanity…slightly). Anyways, let’s look on to some relevant research and perhaps learn a little more about what really matters.
A recently completed study coauthored by professors at Hebrew University in Israel as well as Ohio State University sought to find any correlational effects of parental involvement on children’s educational outlooks. The research looked at 700,000 children with subgroups of children who lost a parent before age 18, kids with parents who divorced, and kids who experienced neither. Comparing these outcomes and measuring them against a child’s academic success revealed that time spent with the parent was identified as a leading factor for long-term educational success. The researchers looked at what happens to kids who experience the death of a parent (or a divorce with minimal coparenting) while also looking at single motherhood and single fatherhood. The research is multilayered and a tad convoluted, but the proposed conclusions are quite remarkable.
First, the genetic predisposition of our kids is not the be-all, end-all marker most have believed—i.e. smart parents make smart children (thank heavens for my nieces and nephews’ sake). And second, family income is not what drives student academic success. These conclusions were driven by analysis into which parent was absent due to death or divorce and how children tend to adopt the educational levels of the parent they spend the most time with. While more research will be done to conclusively validate the studies, the suggestion that income and genetic ability were not nearly as consequential as previously thought should serve as inspiration to the middle and lower economic class families. It can be overwhelming when budgets are tighter than waistlines and parents worry about the playing field their children will be enduring, but it is an invaluable solace to recognize that consistent involvement with our children does wonders for their long-term development.
Educating kids is a hilariously impossible endeavor for parents, especially in the new digital age. There’s apps, tablets, interactive desks, and talking stuffed animals that all purport to really form your children into intellectual prodigies, but as a parent, you have absolutely no idea what is actually beneficial. Reading the news headlines will mean that one day you’ll be convinced that screen time will fry your child’s imagination and brain cells while the next day you will read about how educational programming gives children a head start. We have BrainQuest and LeapFrog and SmartBaby and How to Teach Your Baby to Read and all these overwhelming resources to turn our girl into the next Einstein. I’m thoroughly exhausted and ready to just give my daughter a rock and a stick and pray for the best.
So, as it tends to do, research seems to indicate that parenting matters (who would’ve believed it, right?). Society constantly worries about genetic IQs and school systems and family incomes when it comes to producing productive adults—and rightfully so, to a large extent—but it tends to ignore or at least underestimate what intentional parenting provides to a child’s development. As a parent, I worry about all the macro potentialities that may affect my girls such as private vs public school, the screen time debate, social influences, childcare, and all this other nonsense that I could spend years worrying about and never find a resolution. But the truth is, conflicting with my anxiety-ridden worries, the thing that matters the most is just spending time with my girls. I may not be able to afford private school, but I can read a book each night at bedtime. I may have given her some terrible mathematical genes, but I can carve out a Saturday afternoon of one-on-one time. And that’s all most of us really can do. Spend time with children, invest in your relationship, and feel fairly confident that your kid will turn out much smarter than you thought.