Read to them, talk to them about ideas, read books for your own enjoyment, and don’t worry about the rest. Really.
That the United States has an education problem is old news: In international assessments of educational achievement, it consistently doespoorly, currently ranking 27th in the world—in marked contrast to most other developed nations.
But what may come as a shock to many parents is that not only is there a lot you can do to change a pattern of poor academic achievement for your child, no matter your kids’ school or your hometown or income level, but also that how you can change it might be the opposite of what you’d expect.
I recently read a fascinating book called The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by journalist Amanda Ripley. It was so engaging I couldn’t put it down (which isn’t usually the case for books about educational policy!). What I learned from the research presented in that book turned what I thought I knew about parents and schools on its head.
Most American parents believe the key to supporting a child academically is to support the child’s school. So to encourage academic success, parents volunteer at school at a level that is unprecedented in most other developed countries. American parents head up the PTA, coach sports teams, run bake sales, and run themselves ragged volunteering.
The problem with that approach? Here’s the results of the research:
“Parents who volunteered in their kids’ extracurricular activities had children who performed worse in reading, on average, than parents who did not volunteer, even after controlling for other factors like socioeconomic background … Volunteering in children’s schools and attending school events seemed to have little effect on how much kids learned.”
So what actually does make a difference? What can parents do to help their kids excel in school, that research has proven successful?
Here’s what did make a substantial difference in kids’ test scores and overall academic achievement:
1Read to them when they are young.
Author Amanda Ripley admits that it sounds like a cliché: “Read to your kids. Could it be that simple?” Yes. This little act is life-changing for children. Not only does reading aloud teach children about the world, but it sends “a signal to kids about the importance of not just reading but of learning all kinds of new things.”
Sure enough, the research supported the value of reading aloud:
“Parents who read to their children weekly or daily when they were young raised children who scored twenty-five points higher on PISA by the time they were fifteen years old. That was almost a full year of learning.”
2Talk to them about books, ideas, current affairs, and other “grown-up” topics.
As kids got older, parents could do something different but related to help their children do well in school. Ripley writes,
“All over the world, parents who discussed movies, books, and current affairs with their kids had teenagers who performed better in reading. Here again, parents who engaged their kids in conversation about things larger than themselves were essentially teaching their kids to become thinking adults. Unlike volunteering in schools, those kinds of parental efforts delivered clear and convincing results, even across different countries and different income levels.”
Even on the most hectic day, parents can usually find time to ask their kids how school went, what they had learned, and what they had liked most. Having these conversations about the ideas and topics in your child’s education is proven to make a real difference in their ultimate academic achievement.
3Read books in front of them.
Ripley writes, “At least one high-impact form of parental involvement did not actually involve kids or schools at all: If parents simply read for pleasure at home on their own, they children were more likely to enjoy reading, too.” That pattern was true across many different countries and family income levels. “Kids could see what parents valued, and it mattered more than what parents said.”
Frankly, this sounds crazy to many parents. Sit down and read a book in front of my kids? Isn’t that rude, or negligent?
Well, stop to consider this—do you go on your phone in front of them? Reading in front of kids has results opposite to using a phone screen in front of them. While getting on your phone in front of your kids is detrimental to both you and your kids, reading a book in front of them has nothing but positive effects for you both.
Ripley writes, “Only four in ten parents … regularly read at home for enjoyment. What if they knew this one change—which they might even vaguely enjoy—would help their children become better readers themselves?”
The next time you’re hanging out at home with your kids, consider swapping a book for your phone. Crack open a novel and read it while the kids are playing. It’s not only a fun mental break for you, but will actually help your kids do better in school. And if they ask about what you’re reading, tell them. It’s never too early to start discussing ideas.
Ultimately, what I learned from The Smartest Kids in the World supported my decision to homeschool my children. A major conclusion from the research is that, for students to succeed, the school environment matters significantly less than the home environment: “What parents did with children at home seemed to matter more than what parents did to help out at school.”
Whether you choose homeschool, private school, public school, or some combination, it’s helpful to know what actually matters when it comes to your kids’ academic success. Read to them, talk to them about ideas, read books for your own enjoyment, and don’t worry about the rest. These simple strategies will make a big difference for your children—and if enough of us do them, perhaps for our whole country too.
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