When I was pregnant with my first child, the book I purchased after “What to Expect” was about helping to maximize my child’s intelligence (it may have been “How to Raise a Brighter Child”, but I am not sure). I am going to use the words intelligence and smarts to mean learning fast and making broader connections.
From the reading I have done, much of intelligence is inherited. But “much” is not “all”. There is a lot that parents can do for their children to be as smart as possible. It seems that being smart can be associated with how brain cells are connected. Unlike animals, humans can make the choice to help mold how the brain develops.
All of our bodies and brains are made from the food we eat. Our whole bodies break down and are built again using the macro and micronutrients we ingest. Eating an adequate amount of food is necessary and make sure you offer lots of fruits and vegetables. I am not a nutritionist but I make sure my kids get fatty fish (it is brain food, after all) in their diet, take a multivitamin (offering great food has been no guarantee that they eat it), and I insist they eat protein. If I could find an affordable, tasty, chewable DHA supplement, I would make sure the kids took that as well.
If you read my last post about great toys to make your kids brainier, you may notice that many of the things I recommended do not have a specific, single answer. Open-ended play helps children explore different ways things can go together which means the connections in the brain will reflect that larger understanding, not just a single, specific outcome. Since I defined smartness as making broader conclusions, this will help.
Learn Something, Anything, New
Every time humans learn something new, they need to make neural connections in the their brain. We build our brains through learning. I actually saw an MRI image of a person who played piano and a person who played violin. The piano player had visible extra brain material in the area of the brain that controls the motion of their hands because playing the piano is more left-hand intensive than the violin. Each time people (and this goes for adults, too!) learn something new, they are increasing their brain. Whether those brain cells will be able to be used for other things can depend on age (too bad for us older people), but for kids, they are able to repurpose those cells more easily.
What counts as learning something new? Juggling. Using the mouse with your left hand if you are right-handed. Really, anything you don’t already do.
Keep Those Newly Developed Brain Cells
You cannot talk about maximizing your child’s potential without talking about protecting the brain structure they have. Wear those helmets! Avoid concussions and bouncing the brain back and forth in their skull. Obvious things like falls and blows to the head (everyone remembers the phrase “punch drunk”, right?) should be avoided. There is research pointing to even less obvious behaviors like heading a soccer ball as being problematic.
Standard pediatric practice is to check for lead levels in the blood. Lead poisoning is a serious risk to brain health. Make sure your children don’t ingest lead. Brain health is a great reason to avoid a bunch of bad things like inhalants, and illegal drugs.
Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Everyone needs sleep. Even though we do not know the exact way sleep works yet, there is plenty of evidence that not getting enough sleep is damaging. Make sure your kids your kids have time to relax each evening and get physical exercise each day so they can fall asleep more easily. Have a bedtime routine and a consistent bed time. I have written notes to my children’s teachers if the kids could not finish their homework if it was so extensive that they would have had to stay up late to finish it (assuming they started it before dinner, that is).
If you have even made it this far down into the post, then I know you want to help your kids the best you can. Parent your children to help maximize their learning. Along with taking care of their bodily needs mentioned above, we can be influences in a number of ways. We can demonstrate learning new things! We read in our own free time, fun books and more challenging books like classics and non-fiction. We should praise effort and thinking, not give credit to some inherent ability. We do not need to speak down to our children. Use your extensive vocabulary and explain the words the kids do not understand. We need to listen to our children. We can choose games and toys that stretch the mind.
Most importantly, we can prioritize smartness. We praise great thinkers in front of our children. We avoid nerd and geek stereotypes and object to our children using them. We share new things we have learned. We show that we are proud when our kids choose intellectual pursuits. As this dad says, cheer just as much for that A as you would for a goal on the soccer field.