A parenting success story
My good friend Teresa has some great parenting advice.
Back in 1993 things looked bleak for Teresa and her three children (Monika, George, and Erik) ages 11 and younger. Her husband died following complications from cancer surgery. Raising three children by yourself can be a daunting task. Despite long odds, Teresa succeeded beyond most people's wildest dreams. All three of her children experienced incredible academic success and won full scholarships to college. Teresa didn't have to pay a dime. On the SAT college boards, they scored 1600 (George), 1570 (Monika), and 1540 (Erik). A perfect score was 1600.
What did Teresa do to help her children attain such lofty success?
Teresa was a school teacher ... teaching Spanish at a private school. It's a huge help when your parent is a teacher. You're exposed to teaching 24/7.
She read to them almost every day ... from the time they were 6 months old. Monika (the oldest) would help with this reading activity by reading to Erik (the youngest).
When reading to your children, it's important to ask them questions about what was read. This is to ensure that they're comprehending ... understanding the story. This is what librarians do when they do reading time at the library. Reading is not just about reading words.
When they were young she would only permit them to watch Jeopardy and educational TV shows on PBS. When they were older she'd let them watch Star Trek and documentaries suitable for children.
Teresa would watch Jeopardy with her kids. One time Monika answered a question before any of the contestants or Teresa could answer. Teresa gave her a dollar for doing so. That motivated all three kids to pay attention. They were 11, 8, and 5 at the time. Soon Teresa had to lower the reward to 50 cents and then 25 cents, because the kids were winning too much money.
She would only give them educational toys ... like Lego, puzzles, art supplies, and books.
"Leading by example is very important. As a parent, you should do the things you tell them to do. If you tell them that they have to read, then they also have to see you reading. If you tell them that they shouldn't watch too much television, you shouldn't watch too much television either. If they see you studying chess or Scrabble, they'll be inclined to do so also."
She encouraged them to "look it up" whenever they had a question. They had to use an encyclopedia or do research the next time they visited the library - which was often in the days before the internet.
When Teresa cooked a meal she would engage the children in a discussion about the origins of the food. For example, if it were an Irish dinner, she would have them discuss Ireland. If they had Indian food, they'd talk about India like "What are the big cities in India?"
When Teresa took her kids to places, she'd take them to educational places like museums. To make these visits fun she'd rent them headphones so that they could hear, for example, what a painting was all about. That builds up their curiosity. "When you go to a museum you should see if they have any activities, because activities are always very good for them. For example, at a science museum they may have a video or documentary. Have them attend that first before you visit the museum."
"There are many kinds of learners among children. Some are auditory. Some have to read to keep it in their mind. There are many ways to learn, and you should find out what is best for your kid. For example, Erik didn't like reading as much as the other two did, but he enjoyed books on tape."
"Once they enter the 4th or 5th grade, you should volunteer in their school. This will help you learn a lot about what goes on. I used to volunteer at least one hour/week ... at the library, the main office, or helping a teacher."
"There are teachers who discourage children from doing things. This can have negative consequences. Monika was always good at art for her age. When she was 13 she was going to school in Spain. In an art class the teacher told her she wasn't any good, so Monika ceased wanting to do any more art. This left her discouraged. Moral: You have to be careful what you tell your children. All children are good at everything to some degree ... especially if you encourage them."
"I understand that there are parents who work, so there is not enough quality time, but you should let them try many things. For example, before Erik decided what instrument he wanted to play in school band, I took him to a 'petting symphony'. It's where you can try out all the instruments. The symphony orchestra will allow you to try out several instruments to see which one you like, and so Erik did that and listened to a lot of music, and decided that he wanted to play the cello, because he liked the deep sound of the cello. Unfortunately, the cello is a very heavy instrument, and I had to buy a mini-van just to carry it around."
Teresa says that if your kid is struggling in school, get a tutor. "It's money well invested."
Teresa recommends Kumon. It's a Japanese originated educational franchise that charges between $ 80 and $ 100 per month plus beginning registration of $ 50 plus $ 15 material fees. They help students excel at math and reading. It means to "study after school". A lot of the Japanese people do it. Kumon makes you repeat everything over and over and over again so you get better at it. They give you about ten sheets a day. It becomes like a second language. The first sheets they might give you are basic addition. When you pass all the sheets, they give you some more sheets. It's kind of like flashcards. You go to the Kumon school once/week, and there is a teacher there. The teacher just checks over the assignments you were given and asks if you have any questions and then gives you some new sheets/assignments. The assignments have to be done in order, done correctly, and done in a certain amount of time. It's like practicing a musical instrument.
Teresa admitted that she made some mistakes along the way. If she had to do it all over again, she'd sign them up for gymnastics for at least 2 to 3 years, because "It's the basis for all sports. Gymnastics would have taught them balance and given them upper and lower body strength, and then they would have been much better at other sports. It's like playing an instrument. I always told them that they had to learn piano first for at least two years before they could do an instrument. Piano is the hardest instrument to play and has the widest range. All three children took piano for at least two years. They say you should take a musical instrument by the time you're eight."
"Most kids who are very smart like to do individual sports as opposed to team sports. It would help them cultivate better social skills if they did team sports."
Surprise revelation to Teresa: Her and her husband were bilingual. She spoke Spanish and English; her husband spoke German and English. They initially believed that speaking all three of those languages would accentuate their children's language skills, but they were dissuaded from doing so by a friend. The friend advised them to just focus on English. She said that the multiplicity of languages would drag down the children's English skills and could end up having their children put in slower groups. She turned out to be right.
For more current parenting tips, Teresa recommends the book "Tiger Mom: How You Can Get Your Child to Not Only Be Successful But Dominate" (2015).
Here are some stories about the progress Teresa's kids made:
George could read on his own by the age of 3. George always wanted his mom to read him books, but he didn't want books which normal kids want. He wanted books like gems and minerals and illustrated encyclopedia books. His mom thought those were boring, so she told George that he should learn how to read on his own. Monika had a book called "Hooked on Phonics". It came with several cassettes. At age 1 George learned letters from watching "Wheel of Fortune" while his mom cooked dinner. He was sitting in a baby chair, because he couldn't walk. One week after starting the "Hook on Phonics" George could pronounce the words. At age 3 he surprised a pre-school teacher by reading a sign "No feeding the ducks". Upon hearing that, the teacher had him read other signs. When Monika was in kindergarten she had George read instructions to a game she acquired.
"Monika and Erik began reading at age 5 or 6, but by the time they were in the third grade they could read as well as George."
Erik began playing chess in kindergarten and started bringing trophies home soon thereafter. His competition was other kids in grades K-3.
George won a Science Fair competition when he was in kindergarten. His competition was K-6. He was interviewed on television for that feat. It was all George, because they asked him all the questions, and he knew all the answers. In developing his project, George even called the Canadian Embassy to get some brochures on acid rain. George did all the poster lettering himself. He would print what he wanted to say via his computer and then trace the letters onto the posters. He liked handwriting. He even could trace Japanese and Arabic symbols. He made his own font at age 5. George was called an "ambulatory genius". This means he goes from subject to subject, learns it totally, and then moves on to another subject.
Monika could put IKEA furniture together when she was 8. When George was 5, and they bought an IKEA bed, desk, and library shelf for him. Teresa gave Monika the task of building the library shelves, and she succeeded. "If you let kids do it, they will shine. Kids are much brighter than we think."
Erik took the SAT in the 7th grade and got a perfect score in math.
George went to one of the top schools in the country, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. It was an excellent school. To get in, you had to take a rigorous test and score really high to make the first cut. One contributing factor to the success of the school was that all the children were all highly intelligent, well behaved, and self-motivated. This permitted focus on learning."
"At George's high school they had a 'blind enrollment'. Most of the kids who got in were Asian or white. They tried to recruit blacks and Hispanics to at least take the entrance tests and give them more consideration depending upon their family situation, but that was never successful. A lot of those minorities didn't want to be there, because they knew they couldn't be as good as the kids who made it on their own merit. Some attended for a year but then wanted to return to their neighborhood school, because they can't handle the workload. They also had to take long bus rides to get to the Thomas Jefferson School, because some of them live very far away."
"A survey showed that the hardest thing about the Thomas Jefferson school was getting the kids to work well with others later on in life. The kids were self-motivated and were used to being around other smart self-motivated kids, so they were told to do more 'together' projects to build their team skills. I don't know how that experiment turned out. Some of the kids your child was obliged to work with lived 30, 40, or 50 miles away."
George is now a Stanford math professor, Erik works for Microsoft, and Monika works as a computer engineer specializing in artificial intelligence..
Ken's comments: One of my fellow gym buddies is a retired school teacher named Karen. I asked her for her views on the achievement gap. She attributed it to parents not reading to their children when they're 0-5. They arrive on the first day of kindergarten and are woefully behind the children whose parents have been reading to them. That would be consistent with Teresa's advice.