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Parenting Advice

How To Raise A Lifelong Learner

Written by Christine Elgersma of Common Sense Media

Photography by Rati Sahi, photographed by Maria Del Rio

“Look! When I mix these paints, I get a whole new color!” Hearing your kids get excited about learning feels like glitter bombs exploding in your heart. And it’s confirmation that school and report cards are really only one sign that your kids are learning. While grades and test scores are important, what about the sparkle in their eyes when they discover a “new” bug in the backyard, see a painting that inspires some art of their own, and overcome frustration to go hand-over-hand across the monkey bars? In the end, we want their love of learning to go beyond school and sustain them throughout their whole lives.

Unfortunately, lots of kids start to lose their passion for learning as they grow up. Some research indicates that 40% of U.S. high school students have little or no interest in school. How do they get to that place? For some kids, school becomes less about learning and more about achievement, right answers, and grades. When that happens, they can start to think learning isn’t fun. And as they get older, they want to play it cool and avoid showing a sense of awe about pretty much anything—at least to us. Even kids with exceptional grades are sometimes in it for the letters on report cards and have lost sight of learning.

The good news is that even when kids claim they don’t like to learn, they really do. Maybe their hand isn’t the first to go up, maybe their grades (whether As or Fs) don’t reflect what they know (and don’t know), and maybe they can’t articulate what they love to learn, but there are things we can do to combat this trend. And the media and technology that’s literally at kids’ fingertips can help. Though it’s best to start encouraging kids to be lifelong learners when they’re little, it’s never too late. Here are some tips to keep your kid’s love of learning alive.

Start Early, Inspire Often
Babies and toddlers find everything fascinating: It’s often enough just to play with sand, stack blocks, and even just stare at their hands. Parents can build on this natural inclination in lots of ways. First, you can share their wonder at the world. If your kid is amazed by a spider web or delighted by the garbage truck, let yourself mirror that enthusiasm and build on it by asking questions and noticing things: “The truck’s wheels are circles. What other shapes do I see?” or “I wonder what kind of spider made this web.”

Getting out into the world to have adventures is also a great way to inspire learning. Nature hikes, museums, road trips, and even your own street can have tons of opportunities to discover things and wonder at what you see. Other than showing and sharing excitement, parents can help kids make sense of what they experience. Watching, playing, exploring, and talking with your kid helps them connect some dots and continue a dialogue.

Using Media to Inspire Learning:
*Reading to your kids not only inspires learning and lays a foundation for literacy, but if you comment and ask questions as you read, it shows kids that reading can be an active process.
*And don’t discount kids’ favorite online pastimes, such as watching video clips on YouTube or social media as potential learning opportunities. Check out videos that examine unique concepts, such as the ones on Khan Academy, Vsauce, and SciShow. Ask kids what subjects they’re interested in, what their friends are sharing, and what’s trending to get ideas.

Model Learning
In addition to being open about your own wonder and curiosity, you can also be a role model for the learning process. Once you’re curious about something, what do you do next? We’ve gotten so used to Googling or simply asking Alexa for answers, but sometimes it’s fun to ask more questions and try to figure things out without the help of technology. And sometimes, an unsolvable mystery is part of the fun!

Talking through the learning process with your kid not only shows some ways learning can happen, but also that it’s for grown-ups, too. This can be as simple as sharing what you’re learning from a movie or TV show. It’s especially great to walk kids through what happens when you hit obstacles. For example, if you’re reading articles or manuals to learn a new skill at work or you’re trying a new workout, talk through the tough parts and what you do to overcome obstacles: “I’ve never done this type of exercise, so I’m making lots of mistakes, but I asked for some help and am being a good friend to myself by being patient as I practice.” And when you make mistakes, show how we can learn from them and sometimes even turn them into a “beautiful oops.”

Using Media to Model Learning:
*Find media you can use together. Seeing you learn something—for example while playing family games or trivia apps—demonstrates the process. Also, consider watching movies and TV shows that help foster curiosity.
*Show kids how to use references and research apps to gain a deeper understanding of a topic.

Don’t Be So Sure
Too often, learning is about having the “right” answer, and adults are the keepers of knowledge. Instead of always being the expert, be an explorer with your kid and let them teach you along the way. If they stun you with knowledge and insights, don’t just say, “wow, you’re smart,” since research shows empty praise can backfire. Reinforcing their effort and process with specific observations makes a bigger impact.

Even if you do have some hot wisdom to drop, try to stay open and curious about other positions or further facts about a topic. Foster problem solving and critical thinking by going deeper, examining opposing points of view, and finding connections. Asking, “what do you think?” is always a good place to start when a kid is curious about something to find out what they already know and where they want to go next.

And if there’s a problem you can solve together—repairing a bookshelf, researching potential pets, using a new recipe—go for it! Working through steps, finding information, and untangling tricky moments shows kids that we keep learning throughout life.

Using Media to Explore What You Don’t Know:
*Discover different angles or viewpoints—not to condone or justify things that oppose your values—but to help kids learn to think critically about what they see and hear. Read or watch current events together and fact-check the stories to discover additional information to inform your opinions.
*Watch documentaries on various subjects such as history, animals, and space. Sharing new discoveries increases knowledge–as well as bonding.

Go Beyond Subjects and Skills
Sure, we want our kids to be great at math, reading, and science, but what about the so-called “soft skills” like kindness, empathy, and perseverance? While they can be hard to measure, we want our kids to keep learning about how to be the best human being they can be. Like more concrete skills, building these character traits lend themselves to modeling and narrating so kids can see how grownups work through interpersonal issues: “Someone at work said something that made me angry, so I had to use some chill skills to calm down, and then I used ‘I’ statements when I talked with her about it.” Taking responsibility for mistakes, making amends, and showing self-awareness about strengths and weaknesses is also a good way to demonstrate how we keep working on ourselves and are never perfect.

Using Media to Foster Soft Skills:
*Check out Common Sense Media’s lists of TV shows and movies that emphasize specific character traits. Use the conversation starters in the “Talk to your kids About…” section of the reviews to reinforce messages.
*Role model responsible online behavior so kids are respectful to others when they start interacting online. Digital citizenship skills as just as important as academic skill—not only for drama-free social lives, but also for kids’ potential careers. Learn more social media basics to set your kids up for positive online experiences.

Keep it Real, Encourage Autonomy, Support Self-Reflection
It’s important to let kids try things, fail, and try again. Even as they get older and want to attempt things on their own, you should still let them—within reason, of course. Making choices and having some independence teaches them special lessons they can’t get anywhere else, such as resilience.

When kids are mostly told what they need to learn in school, being able to explore their own interests can be really powerful. Not only can they piggyback on their own passions, but they can also learn things that are especially relevant to their real lives, like changing a tire, organizing a toy drive, or cooking.

It’s also helpful to get kids to examine their own learning process. Self-reflection, mindfulness, and metacognition—understanding how you learn—let kids gain a deeper understanding of themselves and how to approach new topics and circumstances.

Using Media to Encourage Kids to Learn on Their Own:
*Let’s say your teen is on Instagram marveling at Rihanna’s new makeup line. Ask what sets it apart, how it’s being marketed, and why Rihanna might be taking time to do it in the first place. Maybe you can tap into your teen’s interests and turn them into a discussion about branding and being an entrepreneur.
*Have a nightly challenge where everyone has to share one fascinating fact they learned that day at dinner. Twitter is a gold mine of facts. Try following: #AP_Oddities, Bill Nye the Science Guy, or #wokeletter.

For more on this topic, check out Common Sense Media, as well as Mother’s pieces on How To Teach Your Kids Empathy, The German Art Of Raising Self-Reliant Children, How To Praise Kids, and The Importance Of Play-Based Education in the Early Years.

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