In my previous blog post, I shared how science shows that parents are the true gene therapists: the most influential aspect of your child's life.
My aim with this blog is to offer the best practical advice to parents today about what you can do, in your own home and family, to create the optimal environment for your child. At every stage of growth, you, as a parent, can dramatically affect your youngster's social, emotional, and cognitive development. You will discover that you can have a profound impact on your child's ability to learn and succeed in the world.
What you need to know about your child
When I talk about this great power parents have to expand their children's learning abilities, on both my Houston radio show and my Public Broadcasting Station TV interview show, I hear parents ask one question over and over: "But what should we do? After all, most of us were not trained to be teachers."
You don't need formal training or a fancy degree. Your child -- every child -- is born with what Madame Maria Montessori, a highly respected childhood educator and doctor, called "an inner teacher." Madame Montessori believed that children do not need "formal education" to learn much of the important social, emotional, and intellectual behavior in the early years. They are naturally driven to explore.
But what your child must have is an environment rich with the toys and tools that helps her master the progression of skills necessary to build self-esteem and, ultimately, academic success. Your child learns by testing herself against her surroundings. The very act of venturing out beyond your motherly reach and making discoveries about how the world looks, feels, and tastes, adds to the mass of connections in her brain. Your child moves to a higher level of intellectual expansion with each foray.
Your child needs one more thing, too. The most important ingredient in that stimulating home -- the one ingredient that will play the largest role in ensuring that your child reaches the outer limits of her capabilities -- is you.
You have to be there.
You have to be around when your young adventurer returns -- to play, or to talk, or to simply check in with you -- if you want to solidify the progress so far. Your presence builds the kind of trust that leads to self-esteem. You can't create a secure bond with your child by correspondence. When two people want to have a baby, they have to be there, in a room, together -- at least for a little while. For parenting, too, you have to be there to respond to your child's needs and connect. Not just for a few moments. Bonding is one instance where "less" is not more; "more" is more.
There are certain things that your child can learn at your knee that she cannot learn anywhere else. A feeling of security that leads to emotional maturity is one of those things. In the early years, it doesn't take a lot of extra effort. Your child learns that she can trust you and your partner by seeing that you are simply there when she needs you. When she toddles back to the kitchen after exploring the living room, she knows mom will look up from paying bills or stirring the pot to give an approving smile. Such loving parental involvement helps build the kind of bond that creates emotional stability and maturity for life.
The payoff is huge.
If your child is emotionally mature, she will have the potential to possess many advantages. She may sit still and concentrate. That's one of the reasons she may tend to be more self-motivated and advanced than emotionally immature children. She may be more willing to take reasonable risks. She can stick with a problem better, too -- what I call "pushing past their effort." In short, she may possess those qualities that are essential to learning readily and working with people effectively.
Loving touches are also critical to a child's long-term health and happiness. Cuddles and hugs show your child that she is wanted, valued, and worthy of love. That produces a child with strong self-esteem.
Also, skin-to-skin touching bolsters the immune system and decreases stress. Premature babies given daily massage gain 48 percent more weight and are discharged from hospitals, on average, six days earlier. Infants who get massages show lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their urine -- a hormone that destroys important immune cells.
In addition to fostering emotional maturity, you, the parent, are also critical in facilitating intellectual development. When you and your spouse understand what your child needs as she progresses from one developmental stage to the next, she will be able to participate in a way that makes that passage as joyous as possible. Timing is very important. There are prime times, or windows of opportunity, when the human brain is particularly efficient at specific types of learning. If you expose your child to the right concepts and skills at the right time, when she is thought to be most receptive to that type of knowledge, you'll find that she may learn effortlessly. When this happens, learning seems utterly natural. It becomes a true pleasure for both you and your child.