A plan for raising brilliant kids, according to science

Many of you may know I work for a University. I mingle with Deans, faculty members, administrative staff and students on a daily basis. Working in communications, my job is to hear people’s stories and retell them in an interesting way for various audiences, whether that be prospective students, donors, media, researchers or the general public. As part of my job, I do a lot of interviewing – mostly researchers, but sometimes teaching stream faculty and sometimes students themselves.

One of the stories I hear often from seasoned faculty members is how much students have changed in a decade. Students now show up to the first week of classes with mom and dad in tow, often carrying their backpacks (I am not exaggerating or joking). They show up during finals week with parents nervously pacing in the halls while students write the exams. Administrators get inquiries about the status of an application from parents and not students. They get feedback about assignment grades from parents. To hear faculty tell it, this is all new within the last decade. Students used to be autonomous, knew how to take care of themselves. They took responsibility for their education – or at least for themselves. I’m not here to comment on the why this is. That’s not what this blog post is about.

I’m here to say – I’m going to do my  best to make sure Evelyn isn’t one of those students in the future who cannot speak for herself; who cannot communicate with professors on her own; who cannot show up to exams without me holding her hand. Helicopter parenting isn’t a style that I wish to adopt, because I think it does a huge disservice to kids and parents alike. I want to raise a child who  uses her own mind, her own strength and her own sensibilities to navigate the world. I want to raise a child who can do her own laundry, make her own lunches and who calls me after an exam and tells me how it went, rather than leaves the exam hall to find me after she’s written it, relieving of my pacing and pearl-clutching duties.

Some day it will break my heart to watch my child leave the house knowing she will never again live with me, yes. But it will also make that same heart of mine soar with pride. I want to see my child thrive, live a brilliant life and be successful in whichever way she defines success.

I read an article on the NPR site the other day:

A plan for raising brilliant kids, according to science

Everyone knows 4-year-olds are known for asking – on average – 437 questions a day. Some days, I’m fairly certain Evelyn has reached that by 9am. I do my best to answer her questions, but reading the article gave me pause on how I answer them. It made me (re) consider how I am attempting to help her understand the world. It made me think about the tremendous responsibility that comes with being a parent.
We can’t always answer questions thoughtfully or patiently. believe me, by the time 6pm rolls around “because I said so” sounds like a valid answer to damn near any question.
Earlier today on Facebook, I saw that someone had inquired about how old a child should be before leaving them home alone. I read the comment thread and was rather surprised by the answers. Of course, answers vary depending on the child’s personality and their level of responsibility and trustworthiness (or lack thereof).  But I was startled and astonished to see just how many parents have children as old as 14 who have never been alone for longer than 3-5 minutes. Ever. Something tells me those are the kids whose parents show up to the first day of classes at university holding the backpack. By the time I was 14, I had a job as a nanny taking care of two children all summer long.
A couple hours ago, my mom sent me an article:

8 Things Kids Need to Do By Themselves by 13

I feel like the Universe was trying to send me a message. This particular article drove the point home I want Evelyn to think critically and creatively. I want her to be a good communicator with people from all walks of life, all ages. I want her to make her own way in the world. I want her to know she always has my support and love no matter what, but also know that her life is hers to live.
I bought the book NPR recommended – I’ll let you know what I think of it once I’ve read it. Although I haven’t read many parenting books, I thought if science has a way to help my kid live a brilliant life, why not?

No parent, teacher or caregiver has the time or patience to respond perfectly to all of the many, many, many opportunities like these that come along. But a new book, Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, is designed to get us thinking about the magnitude of these moments. With this book, the researchers are putting forward a new framework, based on the science of learning and development, to help parents think about cultivating the skills people really need to succeed.


16 thoughts on “A plan for raising brilliant kids, according to science

  1. I can speak for the Asian or at least Indian culture. We never leave home, we stay with our parents till we get married and choose to start our own “nuclear” home. But otherwise.. never. I was earning and making my own money and still stayed home with parents.. I shared the house chores, paid for house bills etc, but I never paid rent or even the question of me moving out because I was financially independent never arose. My parents came with me to my entrance exams, they waited outside the corridor to pick me up after my exams because it just got me home sooner (as in time wise) than wait for public transit.
    I don’t think I was ever home alone, but that is how India was then.. Large families in apartments, someone is always home and if not home, the neighbour always kept an eye on you at your parents behalf!

    Were my parents stifling my independence? No… I had my own freedom, yes, I was answerable to them.. I couldn’t come home at 11 pm because I chose to do so! But, if I needed to be away at 11 pm, I was allowed..I was expected to know to choose my need.. I was taught to cook, but I cooked only if mom was busy,. and again that was expected and understood! But I can count on one hand how many lunches I made for myself before I relocated for work!

    Anyway,… my point is there is a cultural aspect to this too! Most universities today are overflowing with asian students, so perhaps that could also explain why students have changed.. Parents always mimic their own parents and moving to a new country doesnt change that.. so they are just doing what their parents did for them..

    but I have to say this… My parents never carried my school bag even in grade 1! I was expected to carry it on my own.. :)) and I dont think my parents ever questioned my professors about my performance in university! I think they stopped after high school..

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    1. The cultural difference is something I hadn’t even factored in and you’re absolutely right! I am often envious of big Indian/Asian families that all seem to look out for each other. I know the white “culture” (if we can even call what white people have ‘culture’) is very much “You’re 18, you’re on your own” and people are viewed as a “loser” if they’re not independent. But I think the way you did it makes so much financial sense, at the very least. I had my own reasons for leaving home at 18 (not the least of which was that I am gay and fell in love and moved away) but I wouldn’t have gone through years of debt if I’d done it the way you did.

      Thanks for opening my eyes up to that perspective!

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      1. Yes, other than you know being indebted and grateful to your parents for the life they give etc, what I value most today as an adult is that they gave me the freedom to enter my adult life debt free.. They paid for my tution and my “boarding expenses”. Of course I helped in every way as I could, but it was never expected ( as in my dad never told me to pay an X amount every month towards housekeeping. )
        And I don’t mean this in a negative way against parents who cannot/ do not afford to do so.

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    1. I was talking to a woman here at work who has two kids in their early 20s and she was telling me that it only gets better, even after they move out. She says she and her partner cried when they left, but then the next day they went on vacation and didn’t have to worry about the kids and that was very freeing!

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  2. My husband says the same thing after teaching for 14 years. Kids have changed SO much since we first started teaching. It’s so sad and honestly I just don’t get it. And don’t call the cops on me but I’ve left my 5 yr. old at home by herself for a few minutes while I took her sister to the bus stop with strict instructions to only read or play a quiet game. No eating or climbing. And wow! She’s still alive!

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    1. I am not surprised that even G sees differences in his students (and parents, likely) now vs. the students of yesteryear…or, a decade ago. Sometimes I wonder WHY our generation parents this way. Is it because we were latch-key kids and therefore wanted to do the opposite? Is it because people feel we live in a more dangerous world?

      And I’ve left Evelyn alone for 5 minutes when I run down to the basement (I have to go outside to do this) to do laundry. I will have no qualms about leaving her at home in a year to run to the corner store. So no judgement from me for leaving your 5 year old for a few minutes while you take her sister to the bus stop! I think these things are good for our kids.

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  3. Yes!!!! Mr. MPB and I both already tall about how we hope little MPB moves away for university (assuming he chooses to go to university). Not because we don’t want him in the same city, but because we want him to learn to be independent. And i fully acknowledge that I’ll cry so hard and be devastated when he moves out, but him moving out and learning to take care of himself is way more important then my selfish desire to keep him at home and in my life forever.

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  4. If I ever walked out of an exam and found my mother in the hallway, I’d assume someone was dead or dying. Maybe it’s because I’m a child of the 80s and a former latch-key kid, but I will never understand helicopter parenting. I hope my kids always speak up for themselves and learn how to navigate regular life on their own. What the hell happens to those kids when they need to get real jobs and deal with annoying bosses and coworkers?

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    1. Your first sentence made me laugh and it’s absolutely true. I don’t even think my mom knew when I was writing exams half the time! I often wonder what will happen to these kids who are used to their parents doing everything for them. Eventually, they are going to grow up and be expected to be functioning adults in this world!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Love it! I have had a similar post taking shape in my head, though not specific to college. I was not prepared for life by my parents, but not because they helicoptered. They just walked off and did their own thing instead of preparing us for real life. I read an article a while back about a kid in the UK having an adulthood challenge. Things like mowing the lawn, planning and cooking a meal, and navigating his way home from somewhere on public transit. We as a culture are doing a disservice to our children by handling everyhing for them from toddler skirmishes to college entrance exams.

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    1. I completely agree on all counts. I was just using the university thing as an example since it is so fresh on my mind, working where I do. Evelyn may not even go to university! 4-year-degrees are becoming a dime a dozen. In any case, I agree that we are doing a huge disservice to our children (the royal WE, not just us) by handing them everything and working out their problems without letting them figure it out for themselves. It makes me wonder what society will look like in a couple decades, with all of these kids who cannot think for themselves or who were never given the power to handle things…

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  6. I live with my mother, but it is a practical choice on both our parts. I couldn’t imagine not living with her, but it is because I enjoy the time spent together and how well we work as a team (at least, most days!). As for the home alone thing…. Mom was a single parent who could not afford to hire someone. I was a latch-key kid from an early age: go home, do chores, have a snack, allowed a little free time and then start in on the homework before mom got home from work/it was time for dinner. I enjoyed the independence and I feel strongly that it helped me to be okay with being /alone/. I can entertain and amuse myself. That? That is a priceless skill set to have. ❤️

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    1. If Evelyn wanted to live with me as an adult for practical reasons I definitely wouldn’t complain about that. I just want her to be able to think of/take care of herself and make her own way in this world, I don’t care if she rests her head on her pillow each night in my house or a home she calls her own. Do you think as a child of a single parent that you and your mom have an extra strong bond? I’ve always wondered what children of single moms think as adults. I suppose it is all individual.

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  7. I love this. I think you’d really enjoy Free to Learn by Peter Gray. It’s a neat little read about independence, play, and kids. I adore it and it’s given me a little of insight into WHY our current world of parenting is the way it is and how we can work against aspects of it that we don’t want to participate in. I’ve found so much joy lately – and my wife as well – giving in a little to their independence and allowing them the freedoms that sometimes feels weird or uncomfortable but we know, WE KNOW they can do. And as for basic things like doing laundry or making meals, we are definitely giving them those lessons young, both for practicality but also because it empowers them to feel they can care for themselves. Love this, thank you for sharing!

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