Share Your Passion
Talk to your child about interesting things you've learned, whether the subject is sports, science, art, or cooking, suggests Deborah Stipek, Ph.D., dean of Stanford University's School of Education, in California, and coauthor of Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning (Owl Books, 2001). "If you read an intriguing article or watched an educational program, tell your kids about it." Explain in simple terms what happened and why you found it so interesting. Your kids will sense your fascination even if they can't fully understand the topic. And you'll be sending the message that learning doesn't end with childhood.
Surround Her with Books
Harvard University researchers have found that consistent access to books can increase a child's motivation to read. What's more, a U.S. Department of Education study reveals that the most proficient readers tend to be kids whose homes are stocked with many different types of reading materials, such as newspapers, magazines, books, and encyclopedias. To foster your child's affection for reading, keep books within easy reach -- by the kitchen table, next to her bed, in a basket by the couch, and in the car. Let your toddler flip through old issues of magazines, even if she ends up tearing the pages. Set aside a special time to read together each day. Talk about the story and ask your child what she thinks is going to happen next. Active participation boosts her understanding and keeps reading fun.
Build on Your Child's Natural Interests
If he goes through a dinosaur phase, visit a natural history museum, take out library books about prehistoric times, or buy a model T-Rex that you can assemble together. Or maybe he loves bugs, trains, or outer space. "Don't be disappointed or worried if he isn't into the same thing as the kid down the street," Dr. Stipek says. "Tapping into his unique fascinations will keep the spark for learning alive."
A University of Chicago study of exceptionally high-achieving athletes and artists found that the common denominator among these gifted individuals was their having parents who early on recognized the child's interest and provided as much support and encouragement as they could. "That's our job as parents; children point the way, and we help them clear a path," says Raymond Wlodkowski, Ph.D., coauthor of Creating Highly Motivating Classrooms for All Students (Jossey-Bass, 2000).
You can tap into your child's interests even when he's a baby. "More learning will take place if you give your infant time to see, touch, or taste the objects that he's already interested in, rather than move him on quickly to another toy or activity," says Claire Lerner, Ph.D., a child-development expert at Zero To Three, in Washington, D.C.
Know When To Back Off
After interviewing hundreds of parents, Dr. Ryan and his colleagues found that those who have the most motivated children didn't micromanage or pressure their kids. "They aren't the type to jump in and say, 'You're doing that wrong; let me do it for you,' " he says. "Instead, they let their children figure things out for themselves, while still showing their support." By overcoming challenges on her own -- whether a jigsaw puzzle or a math problem -- your child gains a sense of competence, something that all enthusiastic learners share, Dr. Stipek adds. Her research found that middle-school kids enjoy subjects more as their competence increases. "You're more likely to want to do the activities you feel you're good at."