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Anybody who has kids — or hopes to — wants them to stay out of trouble, do well in school, and go on to do awesome things in the professional world.
While there isn't a set recipe for raising successful children, psychology research has pointed to a handful of factors that predict success.
Using data from a national survey of 6,600 children born in 2001, University of California, Los Angeles professor Neal Halfon and his colleagues discovered that the expectations parents hold for their kids have a huge effect on attainment.
"Parents who saw college in their child's future seemed to manage their child toward that goal irrespective of their income and other assets," he said in a statement.
The finding came out in standardized tests: 57% of the kids who did the worst were expected to attend college by their parents, while 96% of the kids who did the best were expected to go to college.
This falls in line with another psych finding: the Pygmalion effect, which states "that what one person expects of another can come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy."
In the case of kids, they live up to their parents' expectations.
A higher socioeconomic status
Tragically, a fifth of American children grow up in poverty, a situation that severely limits their potential.
It's getting more extreme. According to Stanford University researcher Sean Reardon, the achievement gap between high and low-income families "is roughly 30% to 40% larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier."
"Absent comprehensive and expensive interventions, socioeconomic status is what drives much of educational attainment and performance," he wrote.
Higher educational levels
A 2014 study lead by University of Michigan psychologist Sandra Tang found that mothers who finished high school or college were more likely to raise kids that did the same.
Pulling from a group of over 14,000 children who entered kindergarten in 1998 to 2007, the study found that children born to teen moms (18 years old or younger) were less likely to finish high school or go to college than their counterparts.
Aspiration is at least partially responsible. In a 2009 longitudinal study of 856 people in semirural New York, Bowling Green State University psychologist Eric Dubow found that "parents' educational level when the child was 8 years old significantly predicted educational and occupational success for the child 40 years later."
Provide early academic skills
A 2007 meta-analysis of 35,000 preschoolers across the US, Canada, and England found that developing math skills early can turn into a huge advantage.
"The paramount importance of early math skills — of beginning school with a knowledge of numbers, number order, and other rudimentary math concepts — is one of the puzzles coming out of the study," co-author and Northwestern University researcher Greg Duncan said in a press release. "Mastery of early math skills predicts not only future math achievement, it also predicts future reading achievement."
Offer sensitive caregiving
A 2014 study of 243 people born into poverty found that children who received "sensitive caregiving" in their first three years not only did better in academic tests in childhood, but had healthier relationships and greater academic attainment in their 30s.
As reported on PsyBlog, parents who are sensitive caregivers "respond to their child's signals promptly and appropriately" and "provide a secure base" for children to explore the world.
"This suggests that investments in early parent-child relationships may result in long-term returns that accumulate across individuals' lives," co-author and University of Minnesota psychologist Lee Raby said in an interview.
Avoid junk time with kids
According to new research cited by Brigid Schulte at The Washington Post, the number of hours that moms spend with kids between ages 3 and 11 does little to predict the child's behavior, well-being, or achievement.
What's more, the "intensive mothering" or "helicopter parenting" approach can backfire.
"Mothers' stress, especially when mothers are stressed because of the juggling with work and trying to find time with kids, that may actually be affecting their kids poorly," study co-author and Bowling Green State University sociologist Kei Nomaguchi told the Post.
Emotional contagion — or the psychological phenomenon where people "catch" feelings from one another like they would a cold — helps explain why. Research shows that if your friend is happy, that brightness will infect you; if she's sad, that gloominess will transfer as well. So if a mother (or father) is exhausted or frustrated, that emotional state could transfer to the kids.
Teach a growth mindset
Where kids think success comes from also predicts their attainment.
Over decades, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has discovered that children (and adults) think about success in one of two ways. Over at the always-fantastic Brain Pickings, Maria Popova says they go a little something like this:
A "fixed mindset" assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can't change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled.
A "growth mindset," on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of un-intelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.
At the core is a distinction in the way you assume your will affects your ability, and it has a powerful effect on kids. If kids are told that they aced a test because of their innate intelligence, that creates a "fixed" mindset. If they succeeded because of effort, that teaches a "growth" mindset.
In one study of 4-year-olds, Dweck let kids choose between solving easy or difficult jigsaw puzzles. The kids with a fixed mindset chose the easier one, since it would validate their god-given abilities. The growth-oriented kids opted for the harder puzzle, since they saw it as an opportunity to learn.
Like Popova notes, the "fixed" kids wanted to do the easy puzzle since it would help them look smart and thus successful; the "growth" kids wanted the hard puzzles since their sense of success was tied up in becoming smarter.
So when you praise your kids, don't congratulate them for being so smart, commend them for working so hard.
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