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Cultivating Intelligence – How to Help Sharpen the Mind of Your Child

by Winsome Coutts

My first lesson in the power of adults to cultivate intelligence in kids was given to me by my mother when I was 10 years old. She had agreed to babysit for a 6-month-old nephew for a week. The baby was from a large household, where it received love but not a lot of attention. He came to us with a listless expression and rather vacant eyes, though sweet as every infant is.

After a week with my mom, who spent lots of time looking into his eyes and talking to him with much animation, little Steven was a bright-eyed, laughing, chattering baby. He looked smart and attentive, not dull and off in his own world as he had been when he arrived.

We all remarked on it, and Mom explained the reason: the power and importance of one-on-one attention. Years later, as I become a mother myself and a schoolteacher, I came to understand the ability of adults to either cultivate or dull the mind of a child. So much depends on the degree of focused attention we give. Developing children’s intelligence also depends on the kind of questions we ask, and the activities and questions we encourage.

Asking a child open-ended questions, for example, encourages her to explore within herself for complex answers, rather than parroting back rote answers she’s heard from someone else. If you ask, “How was school today?” you’re likely to get an answer like “fine” or “okay.” By contrast, if you ask, “What did you learn in school today?” or “Tell me what did you do in school today”, the question requires more than a one-word answer, and searching for the answer requires mental activity. That stimulates your child’s mind.

If you’re watching a movie on TV together, rather than just passively absorbing it, turn off the tube at a climactic moment and ask your kid what he would do if he were the character right now in that situation. You may get, “I don’t know” from a child who isn’t used to thinking independently and creatively, but keep encouraging with words like, “Come on, you’d have to come up with something if you were the boy in that jam. What do you think he’s going to do to get out of it?”

If your child still does not come up with a saving strategy, offer some solution you yourself can imagine, and ask him if he thinks that would work. Whether your idea is a good one or a poor one, it will cause your child to feel safer hazarding a creative solution of his own. Whatever he comes up with, praise him for thinking of something so clever, then say, “Let’s go back to the movie and see what the boy in the story actually decided to do”.

At the end of the movie, talk about the story, what you both thought of the characters, if the story seemed realistic, whether it was exciting or dull and plodding, what you liked or didn’t like. This encourages thinking and discernment in your child. Modeling absorbing a movie like a sponge teaches a child to be a mindless receiver, rather than an originator.

You can use a similar strategy whenever you converse with your child, stopping yourself when you are about to ask a question that requires a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Instead, replace that question with one that encourages your kid to reflect and give an opinion, or to make an extended observation.

  • Change “Did you enjoy your field trip today?” to “What was the best thing that happened today on your field trip?”
  • Replace “Did Betsy treat you all right today?” to “What did Betsy do on the playground today?”
  • Change “What grade did you get on your geography test?” to “Tell me about the geography test today.”

Besides encouraging intelligent conversation with your child, stimulate her mind with games and activities that make her have to think. Minimize TV in the home, and replace former TV time with board games or memory games that are perky and challenging. Play these right along with your child, to make them truly fun and engaging.

Some of the favorite games in our family are “Clue,” “Boggle,” “Mastermind,” “Dictionary,” and “Charades.” Find the smart games that your child likes most, and play them often. Add new games as you find them.

Avoid sticking your child with mindless activities (like non-stop TV) that only serves as stand-in for a babysitter. Vegging out in front of the tube is a mind-dulling process, not a brain-sharpening one. It’s one thing to watch the occasional quality television show or to enjoy a good movie, quite another to let the TV run in the background all evening, filling the house with noise and nonsense.

Limit the amount of time the TV can be played in your home, and let your kids select their favorite shows for watching (you get to veto if you don’t like the selection). If TV is a special treat to look forward to, instead of a daily affair, it can be used to sharpen kids’ minds by exposing them to quality programs.

In the blank spaces formerly filled by TV, allow your kids to have non-structured playtime. This is a commodity modern kids get way too little of. In the quiet of non-structured play, children have room to imagine, pretend and create stories. They generate fantasies and inventions that never get to develop in the minds of kids who are too busy with structured activities and TV to have time for a thought of their own.

Make play materials that encourage creativity available to your kids – things like clay, building blocks, Lego, colored markers and paper, puzzles, and tangrams. Make these available to kids (not necessarily all at once) during non-structured play time.

Make it a family tradition to go to the library once a week, or every two weeks. Take out books yourself, and let your kid see you reading them. This models reading as a fun activity that brings pleasure all life long. When you’re at the library, besides choosing a book for yourself, pick out one that you can read out loud to your child. You can choose a book with a vocabulary higher than the level he can read at, but with content geared toward his interest level. Ask your librarian to help you find the classic children stories. “The Chronicles of Narnia” is an excellent place to start.       

When a child is expected to think, and encouraged and praised when she does so, thinking becomes an enjoyable activity that she wants to do more of. Thinking sharpens the mind and brings out its full potential. Never using one’s intelligence allows it to atrophy; much like not exercising one’s muscles causes the body to grow weak.

Keep your kid’s “mind muscle” active and sharp by exercising it with good conversation and activities that require genuine thinking and creativity. That smart kid of yours will thank you for it one day.


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Winsome Coutts holds a teacher’s certificate in education and has written hundreds of articles on self-development. She has studied with Bob Proctor and John Demartini, popular teachers featured on “The Secret” DVD. She is the passion behind the www.4lifehappykids.com and is a parent and grandparent.

Winsome is author of “Go for Your Goals” for kids – a set of downloadable e-books that guide your child through the joyful steps of learning visualization, goal-setting and the Law of Attraction. Simple language enhanced with beautiful illustrations and worksheets make these books appealing and motivating. To learn more, visit www.4lifehappykids.com