With acceptance rates for Vanderbilt plummeting down to 10% this year, parents across the country are getting nervous. As if raising a child is not stressful enough, parents also have to worry about helping their child get into a great college. However, to be admitted and thrive in an elite university, a child must be socially and emotionally healthy, as well as incredibly smart. In this blog, we’ll look at what developmental psychologists and researchers have to say about successful childrearing. What, exactly, does science say is the best way to align your child with a Top 20 university, while also keeping them socially active, accepted, and thriving? Let’s take a look at the five most scientifically supported techniques to raise an intelligent and self-motivated student, while also developing him or her into a healthy, well-socialized individual.
1. Start in the womb.
As far as we’re concerned, it’s never too early to start preparing for your child’s future. One of the best ways to ensure that you give your child the best chance to grow and develop into a 4.00 student is to stay healthy throughout pregnancy. Studies show that teratogens, which are “external agents that can cause damage or death during prenatal development” (Siegler, DeLoache & Eisenberg, 2011, p. 59), are some of the earliest ways that parents can negatively impact their children. Teratogens include tobacco, alcohol, excessive pollution including mercury and lead, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, and a number of other things. These external agents should be avoided at all costs, especially during the most sensitive period of development – the embryonic period (3-8 weeks). During this time, major structural abnormalities can occur, which in turn can have serious negative impacts on future intellectual development (Siegler, DeLoache & Eisenberg, 2011, p. 60). One “pre-birth” myth that we commonly hear is that playing music for your unborn baby will help increase his or her intelligence. There is no scientific evidence to support this claim, so for now, we say just focus on being healthy and unstressed (“Music and Your Unborn Child,” 2011)!
2. Know that your child is watching.
From Day 1, your child is learning and developing. Therefore, our second tip is to get, and stay, involved in your child’s everyday learning. While there are six different types of learning (habituation, perceptual, statistical, classical conditioning, instrumental conditions, and imitation – but these six types deserve an entire blog entry to themselves!), all involve the infant observing or interacting with another individual or some type of stimulation. Therefore, it’s important for parents to offer positive and progressive stimulants. A classic developmental psychology study, conducted by Albert Bandura in the 1960s, found that young children who watched an adult display physical aggression towards an inflatable doll were statistically more likely to show similar aggressive behaviors, especially when adult received no punishment for their actions. Thus, Bandura concluded that young children learn, remember, and are likely to imitate the actions portrayed by surrounding adults (Siegler, DeLoache & Eisenberg, 2011, p. 354). With this in mind, it is important for parents to model behaviors that they would like their children to exhibit, which can include reading and other educational activities, as well as socially acceptable ways of dealing with conflict, anger, and other negative emotions.
3. Offer praise based on effort, not knowledge or success.
Dweck’s Theory of Self-Attributions and Achievement Motivation shows that there are two main beliefs about intelligence – it is either viewed as incremental, meaning it can be developed through effort, or it is viewed as entity, meaning intelligence is fixed and is something you’re born with. Children with an incremental, or mastery, orientation focus more on their own effort and learning, and are more likely to persist through a difficult or challenging task, even if they initially fail. Parents can encourage this orientation by offering praise based on the child’s effort rather than his or her success at completing a task, and to offer encouragement and persistence even after the child has initially failed at a task. This incremental orientation, once instilled in a child, will allow them to strive for improvement in the classroom for the rest of their lives, and has been shown to result in higher improvement rates throughout adolescence (Siegler, DeLoache & Eisenberg, 2011, p. 360).
4. Use an authoritative parenting style.
We know that each parent thinks he or she knows best, but research has shown that certain parenting styles really do affect the child more positively than others. Parenting styles are behaviors and attitudes that set the emotional climate within parent-child interactions, and authoritative parenting is regarded as the best of these styles. Authoritative parents are highly demanding, but also highly supportive, warm, and responsiveness. Authoritative parents set clear standards for the child, and firmly enforce limits. Don’t make these limits restrictive or intrusive, but rather grant a good amount of autonomy to your child. Be attentive to his or her needs and calmly talk about and reason through them together. Open and consistent communication rather than harsh and random discipline is the key to authoritative parenting! Research has found that authoritative parents often raise competent and self-confident children. If you practice authoritative parenting, your child will most likely be highly socially and academically competent, self-reliant, and exhibit relatively low drug use and delinquent behavior during adolescence (Baumrind, 1991; Driscoll, Russell, & Crockett 2008; Simons & Conger, 2007) Overall, if you listen to your child, encourage independence, place limits, consequences, and expectations, express warmth, and allow your child to express opinions, your child will be on the path to an emotionally healthy life (Cherry, 2012), and who doesn’t want that??
5. Emphasize that actions aren’t reflective of character – everyone makes mistakes!
All children will make mistakes throughout their childhood that disappoint you as a parent, whether it’s breaking a special toy as a young child, or secretly getting drunk as a teen. These situations typically elicit one of two emotions: guilt in some children, and shame in others. Guilt is the feeling of remorse and/or regret and the desire to make amends, whereas shame involves focusing on the self, feeling vulnerable, and wanting to hide. The important concept to remember as parents in these situations is to emphasize the badness of your child’s behavior, rather than the badness of your child. This will communicate to them that they have done something that you disapprove of, but that they themselves are not a disappointment. Research has shown even though both of these self-conscious emotions have potentially negative consequences for a child, shame can be more toxic on future development. Shame, rather than guilt, is a strong predictor of depression and low self-esteem, which can deter your child from healthy social and emotional development (Orth, Berking, & Burkhardt, 2006).