When I asked Hans and Xander separately on their ideas on raising smart boys I expected them to cite all sorts of examples such as reading books, learning a musical instrument, visiting the library etc. I was surprised by their nearly identical answer– “be prepared to be very different.” My older boys and my nieces from California confirmed the same idea; it is much more socially acceptable for a girl to “be smart” than a boy.
I realized my sons had gone to the very crux of educating boys with their first response. Google “American boys falling behind” or any sort of variation on the those words and millions (it’s Google after all) of articles pop up decrying boys’ lag behind girls in American schools.
An article from NPR pegs the problem, “We have lots of boys who at an early age start to think of education as being not masculine enough.”
How did we get here? In the past, education was highly valued. When did “smart” equate with “uncool”? And doesn’t every parent want to raise intelligent, creative children– boys and girls?
I have ideas on some of the reasons, but I’ll get to those a bit later. If you’ve read this far, you’re the kind of parent who cares about education, so I’ll offer up my best tips.
Take time to educate yourself. I’d placed this further down on the list, but my boys insisted nothing could be more important. When parents love learning, their kids will love it too. Read the paper, listen to the radio, teach yourself an instrument, (a language, any new skill), read books and talk about them, study the scriptures and enthusiastically share your ideas. Erik is the best example of this I’ve ever seen. He often says he doesn’t think he’s particularly smart; he just takes the time to learn. He’s always reading out loud something from Jewish World Review, citing a story he heard on NPR or studying books on economics and history. His example fuels my boys’ passion for knowledge. Learning isn’t a ‘program’ or occasional activity; it’s our family culture, it’s what we do.
Believe your child is brilliant. Shinichi Suzuki oft repeated, “Every child can learn.” while Einstein quipped, “Every child is born a genius.” Not every child can become a concert violinist or a nuclear physicist, but they CAN learn. We need to believe in our children’s abilities. Teach your child bits of foreign language, math, science, music…
Read to your kids. This advice has been given so often and expanded on so many times, I won’t belabor the issue. Just don’t stop reading to your kids when they learn to read themselves– they still crave your voice and your attention.
Turn off the TV. Again, this may seem a bit obvious, but lack of TV does more than free up time for reading and practicing the piano. By avoiding commercial television, you also avoid modern stereotypes of masculinity. My kids don’t see the goofy, crude men in beer commercials and sit coms because they don’t see commercials or sit coms at all. With the advent of Netflix streaming we can no longer claim to be TV free– my kids have caught up on all kinds of series on my computer, but at least Netflix demands a conscious choice–not mindless flipping through channels. Xander tells me the gifted program at his school is full of kids who don’t have cable TV. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Buy books. Go to the library, borrow from friends, but make sure you have plenty of books in your home. I’ve heard expense cited as an excuse, but with garage sales, used book stores and the library close-out shelf, you can easily amass a decent library for $10 a month. It’s important to have books where you can fold the corners, write in the margins and read over and over like revisiting an old friend.
Read your kids books. At first, I did this as a precaution for my ambitious little readers. I wanted to make sure their books were age appropriate (handing Stefan Schindler’s List at age ten was NOT a good idea). But as they got older the boys (and now Mary) began to hand me books they’d read and loved. By reading their choices I was able to discuss themes and plotlines with them and because I listened to their recommendations, they were more willing to listen to mine. I’ve read all the Artemis Fowl, Pendragon, Fablehaven and Incarceron series my boys love. They’ve introduced me to Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy novels and spy books like Alex Ryder. I’ve learned to enjoy these genres I’d never found interesting before and I believe many of the best modern writers are penning children’s and young adult fiction. In return they’ve been much more willing to read masterpieces such as Peace Like a River, A Tale of Two Cities, Les Miserables and anything and everything from C.S. Lewis. In fact, any time my kids are grouped together reading (filling every couch and chair) one of them will be holding a C.S. Lewis book.
Play an instrument. Note the emphasis on play. You don’t need to raise the next Mozart (we all know his father was bit overbearing) but thousands of studies have shown the value in learning music. In my own home, I’ve seen musical training teach children sensitivity, math skills, the ability to work hard. Yes, music lessons and instruments can be expensive but there are a thousand ways to navigate costs. Trade skills with a friend, take advantage of community programs, practice on the widow’s piano next door…
When your child finds an interest, run with it! Nothing hastens learning more than personal enthusiasm. Obsessed with dinosaurs? Check out every dinosaur book in the library and visit your local Natural History Museum. Rocks, trains, animals, space– same drill. Just don’t be surprised when they drop that interest and move on to the next.
Be willing to place education above sports. Sigh…. this is by far the most controversial subject on my list. Sports ARE the true American religion; especially where we live. But when we have to choose, we choose education every time.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I love sports and consider myself an athlete. My boys are running around outside at this very moment playing some odd combination of soccer, baseball and archery. They’ve played on numerous soccer, baseball, football, lacrosse, basketball, track, cross country, Ultimate Frisbee, wrestling and swim teams. Team and individual sports teach cooperation and hard work while developing fitness and coordination. But I believe our country’s overemphasis on athletics holds the primary blame for boys’ lag in education and the United States’ low rankings in education worldwide. Europeans, who are unarguably more fit, place much more emphasis on schoolwork and promote intramural sports.
The worship of sports and athletes contributes to the fallacy “education isn’t masculine enough.” Ask a dozen eleven-year-old boys what they want to be when they grow up and ten will answer, “I want to be in the NBA, NFL, MLB.” While I appreciate their optimism, there’s simply no way every one of these kids will grow up to be a professional athlete. The amount of time and money invested in athletics would pay a boy back many times over if invested in education.
Again, we’re not anti sports. But when a team demands excessive time during and after school, we drop the team, not the AP class.
Use the internet for good. Yes, the www can drain all our time and energy, but the educational resources are tremendous. Any time my boys are on the computer you can bet they are competing on DuoLingo to see who can learn the most French and Spanish, listening to a TED talk, studying on Khan Academy or watching a science or history video on YouTube (they also visit facebook and play mindless tank games too). Truly, I detested YouTube until my boys showed me these incredible videos explaining difficult concepts: minutephysics, Veritasium, CGPGrey, The Art of Manliness, ViHart and VSauce. The Piano Guys and mormon.org are favorites too.
If you only click one of these links, check out Khan Academy— hands down the best, free educational resource on the planet. Need math tutoring? Confused by the French Revolution? Khan has it all. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Last, Own It. I’ll admit, for years, I encouraged my boys to keep their brains under a bushel– “don’t raise your hand too often.” Stefan hid it so well, his track coach asked if he was thinking of going to college. And while it’s never wise to brag or act superior to anyone else, it’s fine to admit you like learning. At the beginning of Hans’ sophomore year, he noticed no one was answering the teachers’ questions. He was often the lone sophomore in a class full of juniors and seniors, but he decided to raise his hand whenever he knew the answer. Soon, the entire class was participating.
The more our boys own their intelligence, the sooner the deficiencies in boys education will disappear. As parents (and especially as fathers) we can make learning masculine again. We don’t need to swing the pendulum back to educating boys and ignoring girls; but move forward, where education is a priority for everyone.
I’m convinced our generation of parents can raise the most intelligent and creative wave of children the world has yet to witness.