Two Ways to Make a Kid Smarter
By Martha Brockenbrough
When I was pregnant with my first child, I did something I suspect many rookie parents do: I bought a book that promised I could make my baby smarter.
It included all sorts of instructions--everything from reading to the fetus to making black-and-white mobiles, and later freezing cubes of breast milk and letting them slowly thaw in her presence.
Maybe because I've never had much luck with the do-it-yourself Popsicles, I gave up on turning my child into a genius. But that didn't stop me from buying way too many toys that beeped and flashed lights because the box said they were "educational."
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In retrospect, they were educational. I learned never to buy really annoying toys, except as gifts for other people's children.
Still, the impulse behind the books, breast-sicles and beeping toys remains: to help my kids be as smart as they can be.
The hardest part about it, really, is defining what smart really means. Does it mean high IQ? Or is it something more complicated?
For me, it's something more complicated. After all, a person can be really smart, but can lack the social skills and emotional intelligence our world requires. I've seen many people with killer scores on standardized tests go on to careers that leave them feeling less than satisfied, no matter how much money they earn. The Unabomber went to Harvard and taught math at Berkeley, after all.
Likewise, I've seen people I considered to be average in high school go on to run companies and do dazzling things I never would have anticipated when they were younger.
So I've decided that readiness to learn and creativity in sharing and applying knowledge are more important to me than having kids who rack up killer test scores.
And along the way, I've learned some interesting things. Getting kids ready to learn--and ready to develop their own smarts for all their lives, in deeper ways than can be measured on standardized tests--requires thinking about the body and the mind. And it also requires time well spent.
body portion: Feed your child's brain
UCLA researchers looked at six- to eight-year olds in 1984, then another, larger group of them in 1998, and noted something amazing: In just 14 years, their IQs increased more than any other population ever studied.
There were two key factors. The first is that the kids started getting better nutrition--including more protein, which kept them alert, energetic, and less prone to anemia, an iron deficiency that dulls thinking skills.
Even if you don't live in Kenya, there's a good chance your kids aren't eating what they need for optimal brain performance. For example, if they're not eating a lot of fish, or taking fish-oil supplements, then there might be an opportunity for some gains.
Foods rich in omega-3 fats--such as salmon, fresh tuna, herring, and sardine--contain something called eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA. EPA does three things: It boosts blood flow to the brain, it helps make hormones that boost brain function, and it helps boost the immune system by acting as an anti-inflammatory agent. (A healthy immune system is important for young children, because illness can wear them out and impair learning.)
A study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that kids who took fish-oil supplements, which contain omega-3, showed huge improvements in spelling, IQ, and reading. Even their behavior got better.
Typically, kids (and adults) in the United States don't eat a lot of fish--and therefore are missing out on the benefits. Fish oil isn't a magic potion, but experts are increasingly agreeing that we need more in our diets. (A word of caution: Mercury levels are high in some of these same fatty fish. Mercury--a pollutant from coal plants--can cause brain damage and other physical ailments. Many stores now carry warnings on the most susceptible fish products.)
The Kenyan kids didn't improve through diet alone, though.
The second reason their IQs soared was that their parents put more emphasis on schooling and were more literate themselves.
In this way, they were like 20th-century nations going through industrialization. During that time, the average IQ in 20 industrialized countries jumped 18 points per 30-year generation. This IQ boost is called the Flynn effect, after the New Zealand political scientist James R. Flynn, who first observed it.
And it's not just industrialization that has led to higher IQ scores, Flynn says; post-industrial societies with smaller families, more time off, and jobs that demand abstract thinking also have led to higher IQs.
This gets to the time factor. Families with fewer kids theoretically have more time to spend on each, especially when there is leisure time to read or do other brain-boosting activities. Also, people who work jobs that challenge their minds get smarter.
School is the same way. No matter what your kids' gifts, if they aren't ready to benefit from what a classroom has to offer, they will probably experience the educational equivalent of a quarterback sack. They can get up after that happens, but not without having their confidence rattled.
It's the parents' job to suit up their little intellectual quarterbacks. Before they set foot in a kindergarten classroom, even the most gifted of kids need to know how to listen, observe, ask questions, and organize and share information. These are the fundamentals of learning.
You need to make sure your little ones are engaging in conversations, practicing making observations, and organizing information in their minds, or they won't be ready to get the most out of school. This is the sort of thing you can do on a walk--counting blue cars, for example, or finding leaves with odd numbers of points on them. By doing this, you're teaching your child how to make observations and make sense of them.
Kids also need to know how to get along with others--everything from sharing toys to taking turns. We live in a crowded world, and emotional intelligence can help lead to success and happiness just as much as intellectual intelligence can.
In both areas, quality preschool education could be a big help to parents and, later, to companies that want well-educated, curious, and competent workers who know how to play well with others.
The United States lags badly behind the rest of the industrialized world in its commitment to its youngest students. USA Today reported that almost every other industrialized country in the world provides high-quality preschool for free. By contrast, only 70 percent of four-year-olds in the United States go to preschool, which can cost as much as $15,000 a year.
All of this, of course, takes a lot more time, thought, and effort than dangling a mobile over a crib, changing the batteries in an "educational" toy, or popping in a classical music CD. But honestly--what's the alternative? Kids who achieve some of their potential?
That sounds worse to me than melting Popsicles made from my own milk. And that's saying something
Martha Brockenbrough lives, writes, and plays in Seattle. She is the author of It Could Happen to You: Diary of a Pregnancy and Beyond.