Praise results Stick-to-itiveness is a quality that will endear your child to teachers—and employers. We as a culture are so busy making kids feel good that we've lost sight of the time it takes for them to actually become good, says Rhee. “My kids both play soccer, and both stink. But judging by the trophies and ribbons that line their room, you'd think I had the next Mia Hamms here,” she notes. It's hard to accept failure if you're constantly told you're the best. When these kids go to school and get a problem wrong, they think “It can't be me.” Giving the right props is key, says Stephanie Rosales, a licensed educational psychologist in La Quinta, CA: “Children who are praised for solving a problem tend to be more motivated in school than children who are told they're smart. The latter, ironically, often become frustrated when something doesn't come easily.” So instead of giving broad praise (“You're a star!”), give kudos for accomplishments (“I'm proud of how you found a different way to get the answer”). And if you're going to hold up a gold standard, make sure it's truly gold. Say “You're almost there. Keep trying.”
Celebrate curiosity Preschoolers very nearly glow with curiosity. But sometimes kids lose that as they get older, says Brenneman. Keep them excited by honing in on what interests them. If you ask questions about what they're playing with or talking about—“Yes, even if it's Pokémon, as it was with my son,” says Brenneman—you've initiated a give-and-take that will pay off in a smarter kid. Your child will ask questions and look for more good stuff to share in return. Take time to turn your kid on to what you're excited about: Check out a museum or watch an interesting show together, and tell your child what you like about it and why. Rich Braun, a dad of two in East Islip, NY, used to work weekends. So to be able to share his interests with his son, Erik, when he was in elementary school, he occasionally pulled him out of school to visit a museum. His teachers always agreed, since the next day he told the class what he had learned. “Erik felt like the expert for a day, which over the years boosted his confidence and eagerness to learn more,” says Braun.
Seize teachable moments You can help your child sharpen school skills as you go about your day. Say you drive by a windmill. Instead of saying “Hey, a windmill!” ask a question: “What do you think they do?” Encouraging observation of details will help your child do the same in class, says Rosales. And a trip to the store can be a chance to build vocabulary, math skills, and money smarts. Tell a 2-year-old the names of fruits as you bag them. Ask a 3-year-old to find four cans of peas. Have a 5-year-old write down which cereal she wants. Older kids can compare prices and sizes, and sort coupons. Sarah Brown, a preschool teacher in Hollywood, MD, had her 2-year-old students paint with apples, bananas, and then skinny carrots. When her students advanced to the 4-year-old group, the teacher noticed that they had better prewriting skills than the new students.
Whether your child is advanced or average, the best thing you can do is be involved. Taking her on this journey of self-discovery is what'll drive her personal genius. In one word: What do you most want your kid to be? Happy? Funny? Confident? Loved? We're betting “Valedictorian” didn't pop to mind. Your goal is to help your child be the best he or she can be, right? If you've read this far, you're both well on your way.