Say This, Not That To Raise Smart Kids Who Can Think For Themselves

These easy conversation starters will grow your child's brain.

mom talking to daughter fizkes / Shutterstock

The most important thing any parent can do for their children is to have conversations with them, starting the day they're born. While genetics supply the blueprints, how much children achieve is largely determined by how and how much parents talk and interact with them.

As parents, we want to make our words count.

So why not maximize the phrases we say every day and help our kids get smarter, faster?

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1. Ditch the directives

This first question invites a child to think through the situation, which can lead to stronger problem-solving skills down the road. It also supports his/her emerging autonomy. The second is more of a demand that can make you feel like you're in control. But in reality, using directives does little to help build your child's brain. 


2. Praise the process

What we really want our children to feel is that they can overcome any challenge if they don't give up. It's called grit, and it's what distinguishes people who succeed from people who do not. Developing perseverance and staying motivated expand the brain.

When we talk to our children about how hard they worked, we turn "smart" into an action. And we let them know it's an action we want them to repeat again and again and again.


3. Encourage a positive self-image

Never underestimate the power of words. It turns out that researchers discovered that young children, three to six years of age, were more likely to clean up a mess when they were asked to be helpers than if they were asked to simply help. Try this simple rephrase the next time your child spills his glass of milk or doesn't want to put away her toys. 

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4. Focus on the behavior

Ultimately, we want our children to know right from wrong, to grow up, and make healthy life choices. It all starts when they're young. Criticizing a specific behavior helps children learn exactly what not to do without hurting their sense of themselves.

Learning to fix a mistake becomes doable and desired. Believing that you're bad takes a long time for a child to unlearn. 


5. Be as specific as possible

Our children need every chance to learn new words and make the connection between the words we say and the environment they live in. "It" comes naturally to us as adults; we know what we mean after all. But every word and every description helps to build your child's brain.

The more we can use specific labels for what we're talking about — the kitchen chair, Uncle Charles, your red tricycle — the more our children will understand and richer vocabulary they will have.


At the end of the day, what matters most is that we say more, not less.

In homes where there was a lot of parent talk, the children were more prepared for school. They performed better in school and achieved more outside of school. And this was true, regardless of where the children lived, how many degrees their parents had, or how much their annual income was.


Every word you say builds your child's brain. It doesn't require any additional time. By talking with your child, you transform taking a bath or peeling a banana, or cleaning up the playroom into a brain-building experience that also strengthens the bond between you and your child.

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Dr. Dana Suskind is Professor of Surgery at the University of Chicago, Director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program, and Founder and Director of Thirty Million Words.