Childhood reflections: What parents can do to foster a lifetime love of learning
An old friend recently confided in me about his anxieties over whether he was doing enough to prepare his 5-year old son for the future, particularly in the academic realm. He witnessed other parents who had their children doing educational activities like flashcards and learning apps. My friend, wary of submitting his still-young child to intense academic pressures, wanted to know what he could do to prepare his son for the future, without sacrificing the joys of childhood. Knowing that my two siblings and I had attained academic and professional success, each in our own unique way, my friend wanted to know what gems I had to offer from my own childhood.
Learning was important in my home, and my parents modeled many good behaviors that would help us succeed academically and in our adult lives. But we were never subject to intense academic pressures at any stage of our development. After describing some of the specific things my parents did to raise academically successful children, my friend asked me if I could write this list down for him. I hope these ideas may be useful to parents who are looking to create a home where learning is central, and academic pressures are minimized.
Reading, reading, everywhere
My parents loved to read, and I have vivid memories of them deeply engrossed in books at home and on vacation. Likewise, I remember the overflowing bookshelves of both sets of grandparents. Books were a fixture in our household and in our lives.
Choice and autonomy: It doesn’t matter what you read, just read!
When I was 10, the bookshelves in my room were filled with joke books, comic magazines and horror books. My parents never attempted to influence my literary tastes; as long as I was reading, they were happy. I had an insatiable appetite for Truly Tasteless joke books, Cracked and Mad Magazines and National Lampoon’s: the more irreverent the better. When I wasn’t picking up new material to amuse my friends and classmates, I was thickening my skin by subjecting myself to the scariest books I could find, devouring Stephen King’s catalog. My parents encouraged my intellectual freedom, which was a powerful motivator. As I read, my vocabulary and fluency grew, and I found myself at an advantage when it came to school.
Dinner time: extemporaneous speaking practice
It should come as no surprise that all of my siblings and I love to speak and give public lectures. Our love of debate and discourse, which proved a major asset in academia, was forged at the family dinner table. We ate together as a family several nights a week. The discussions at our dinner table were about real world events, politics, technological and scientific breakthroughs, and moral quandaries my parents had faced. My parents wanted to hear our opinions, respecting what we had to say on any given topic. Questions and debate among the family were welcome. As such, we learned to take positions, defend them, and engage in critical discourse. Dinner was an important, lively, and enjoyable time for our family, and it certainly added to our confidence as critical thinkers and speakers.
Written expression: the vacation journal, one page minimum
During our family vacations, my mom, a journalist by trade, insisted that every child fill in at least one page each day in his or her vacation journal. During journal time we could write expressively, or creatively, or we could draw, but we had to complete a single page. I would frequently draw pictures from our travels or make up stories. Having such freedom of expression encouraged us all to enjoy writing and look forward to it. Eventually we all kept our own private journals and wrote for ourselves, for the pleasure of it. Today my brother, sister and I all write in our respective careers.
Spontaneous story telling: nurturing creativity through play
My father was a weaver of wondrous tales, and most nights we would sit around my or my brother’s or sister’s bed as Dad would craft stories from his imagination, books he had read, and current events. One particular saga, the witches of the “Red shoe, Green shoe” fame, seemed to go on for months. In this, the age of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, we loved to influence the story. We made choices and participated in the plot lines. This gave us a sense of confidence in our creative expression.
Ample unstructured play time
My parents gave my siblings and I copious amounts of unstructured play time. After school and on weekends we would wander the neighborhood, get lost in the woods, have acorn fights, ride bikes, make forts, and play impromptu sports. We learned how to entertain ourselves without adults, pursue our own creative projects, and explore our own interests. Learning to trust ourselves and our passions has encouraged us to all develop a strong sense of individuality.
Creating a culture of curiosity and learning
Questions were welcomed in my house. I broke the “Why?” counter, but my parents never seemed to run out of patience for my endless inquiries. We had a well-worn set of World Book encyclopedias on the shelf, used to resolve countless disputes and expand conversations. We’d visit museums whenever we travelled, delving into history, science and art.
Modeling continuous education
After dinner, I remember walking by my father’s study and seeing him engrossed in his medical journals, JAMA, the New England Journal, Rheumatology journals and more. He was dedicated to scholarship and staying at the cutting edge of his field. After my siblings and I had all started elementary school, my mom went back to school herself, pursuing an advanced degree in counseling, the same degree I would earn some twenty years later. Learning was not something that ever ended; it was a life-long pursuit.
Providing ample positive reinforcement
Our academic accomplishments were always acknowledged and our efforts validated. We knew our parents cared about how we did, but we never received punishments or material rewards for our grades. We could earn an allowance through completing household chores, but there was never any compensation for academic performance. Nor was there punishment. Our parents looked with interest at our grade reports, praised our hard work, and that was enough. The messages they conveyed were subtle, but we all came to internalize the drive for academic success. Sometimes saying less can be more powerful. We eventually learned that we were getting grades for ourselves, and not for our parents.
Growing up in this environment, it is not a surprise that the children in my family developed a love for learning that influences us all to this day. Learning was a source of pleasure. Our home was not a pressure cooker: academic pressures were almost nonexistent. I think of the beautiful tradition in the Jewish faith of placing a dab of honey on the tongue of a young student when he/she learns the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, to reinforce the connection between pleasure and learning. Pleasure, intrinsic motivation, is powerful and durable.
By fostering an environment rich with play, curiosity, discourse and dialogue, parents will be planting the seeds for academic success and life success. The specific activities that took place in my home are, in some ways, less important than the foundational child-rearing principles that they embodied: parents modeling good behavior; play as a vehicle for fostering creativity, exploration, and self-expression; and autonomy in identifying one’s own interests and passions. I told my friend to cultivate this kind of home life for his son, rather than fixate on drilling flash cards or worrying about whether he will get into certain schools. Teach your child the joys of learning, and this will be the foundation for your child’s success.