Pop quiz: What’s probably the simplest thing you can do to inspire your kid to love learning?
A) Supervise homework.
B) Arrange some extra self-guided studies.
C) Sign ’em up for academic extracurriculars (math club, chess club, debate).
Those things might help. But when it comes to influencing an excitement about learning that’s strong enough to sustain any child through high school and beyond, new research suggests that the most influential thing we can do is only loosely “educational.” It’s actually this:
D) Hang out together.
Spending quality time with parents, finds a new study reported in The Journal of Youth Studies, brings high-grade academic benefits to preteens and teens.
It transmits a “culture of learning,” lead researcher Dimitra Hartas told me.
It’s even more influential to a love of learning than spending time in academic extracurricular activities, according to University of Warwick researchers, who wanted to know what best predicted the academic aspirations of 10- to 15-year-olds.
It’s free—and easy.
Set aside images of homework drills, coaching math club, helping with projects, and the usual kinds of parental educational supports.
“The family and home environment shouldn’t be seen as an extension of the school day,” says Hartas, an associate professor in Warwick’s Center for Education Studies. “Learning and expanding young minds can take other forms.”
Really simple forms, she says:
- Having conversations at the dinner table
- Talking in the car
- Watching or listening to the news together
- Talking about books or movies
- Going to museums, shows, libraries, and other cultural outings
Even the museums part is icing on the cake—wonderful and enriching but not the main ingredient. “It’s about parents spending time with their children talking about an idea, debating something they heard on TV or the radio while they’re outside in the garden or in their living rooms,” Hartas told me.
Here’s why it’s so great:
These conversations may not sound like much. But over time, they foster a positive atmosphere about thinking and learning that sends out wide ripples into our kids’ futures, the research suggests.We give them:
Emotional closeness. This is what preadolescents and adolescents prize most, and it’s a powerful influence on doing well academically.
Examples of HOW to think. (Not necessarily WHAT to think.) We model ways to look at a situation, consider it, and form opinions—and kids pick up on that.
Encouragement that builds intellectual curiosity. When we talk to them, we extend their views about everyday things and occurrences, Hartas says. When kids are listened to, they feel valued.
Exposure to experiences and ideas outside of school. Real life is about more than algebra and composition, after all. “Home should be a place where kids can experiment through trial and error with ideas and issues that aren’t necessarily school driven,” Hartas says.
A sense that learning can shape your identity and dreams. Kids who get these kinds of experiences from us at home are more likely to view learning as something bigger, broader, and better—something far more engaging—than just a school-driven process, Hartas says. “It’s not just about getting good grades at school.”
Here’s the best part:
At a stage when tweens and teens are becoming more peer-oriented, it’s added incentive to find even small ways to keep connecting with them. A family dinner as often as we can grab it. Devices-off time in the car every once in awhile.
Small, ongoing talks add up to big dividends, the research shows.
Learning is a life-long game.
Hartas hopes this research widens the lens on how we all view our kids’ learning. Parents are under a lot of pressure to support kids’ academic lives, she says, whether to make up for schools’ shortcomings or to give our kids a leg up on college and the future. “We should question the current obsession with approaching learning instrumentally—as a way of getting good grades, passing exams, getting a job, and so on,” she says.
It’s even made her view life with her own two teenage sons differently. “What I take away from this study is that, as a parent, I should take a long-term view of their learning and education,” she told me.
After all, she says, it’s easy to get a little myopic about helping our kids manage tonight’s homework, be ready for this week’s test, or get the supplies they need for book reports or science projects. “These are important tasks,” Hartas concedes. “But I should be supporting them to approach learning as something bigger—something that excites their minds, a way of understanding their increasingly complex world and their place in it.”
Because we don’t just want them to get a diploma, right? We want them to be curious, thinking, interesting people…wherever life takes them.