Eva Moskowitz founded the Success Academy Charter Schools network about 15 years ago. That system educates more than 20,000 students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, and is amongst the country’s largest and highest-performing school districts. She is also the mother of three children who have all flown from the nest, off to college.
Below, Eva shares 5 key insights from her new book, A+ Parenting: The Surprisingly Fun Guide to Raising Surprisingly Smart Kids. Listen to the audio version—read by Eva herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Learning can be a very satisfying part of parenting.
Learning can be way more enjoyable than we give it credit for—both for your kids and for you as parents. For example, my husband and I played a tremendous amount of intellectual board games with our children—games like Backgammon, that not only teach young children how to be better counters but can also teach children about probability. If played at an even more sophisticated level, there’s a game theory element to Backgammon as well.
Or for instance, the tried-and-true boardgame classic: Monopoly. It teaches kids about strategy. Do you buy a more valuable property for more money and sacrifice how many houses and hotels you can afford down the line, or do you buy a cheap property and put many houses and many hotels on it? Such games not only teach strategy but also the life skills involved in making economic choices. It’s fun to be a kid again and play games, but your kids also enjoy playing and can learn so many things in the process.
Those board games can become part of your children’s lifelong journey. My kids are still playing Backgammon as adults, obviously at a much higher level than when they were young. Engaging in intellectual activities with your children is not only part of being a great parent and having satisfying experiences with your children, but it’s also beneficial for your kids’ development.
2. Kids are constantly learning in ways you may not realize.
When writing this book, I asked myself questions like, How did my kids come to appreciate language? It wasn’t through drilling with a vocabulary book. My husband and I enjoyed listening to music on car rides. We would put on Bob Dylan for our love of the lyrics, or we’d listen to Hamilton or West Side Story. These lyrics contain so much meaning and cleverness that we would stop the music and talk about the words with our kids. Kids have an incredible ability to understand why a line is elegant, ironic, or well-said.
“Schools and classrooms are not the only places for learning.”
So, listen to music with great lyrics with your kids. I would argue that this is one of the most powerful parenting experiences. It’s part of raising smart kids who pay attention to the language around them. You don’t have to drill a vocabulary book or teach your kids idioms out of context. You can do this enjoyable thing, like listen to Hamilton, and foster in your kids an incredible appreciation of musical poetry. Schools and classrooms are not the only places for learning. My husband and I made every environment a “classroom,” and made engaging with fun part of learning.
3. Dinner table conversations are immensely powerful.
Kids learn so much through conversation. Even though I worked many hours a week—and I can’t say that I never missed a dinnertime—our kids talk about our dinnertime conversations to this day. The most powerful levers of parenting don’t have to be seen as doing something additional, because a lot of levers are already a part of daily life. You might say to yourself, “Well, when the kids are five, it’s not as if you can talk about the latest medical breakthrough or how the markets are doing.” It may seem hard given the disparity between your knowledge and theirs, but I have recommendations for how to get quality dinner conversations going for a variety of ages.
For instance, watch a classic film in the afternoon. Take a Sunday afternoon to watch something that you can all enjoy. Maybe The African Queen, Lawrence of Arabia, or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. There are six years in between our oldest and our youngest, so we always had to find films that everyone could connect with. Then use your dinnertime conversation to talk about the film and your experience watching it. It levels the playing field amongst the entire family, and I was just amazed at how much all our children picked up on, and how they disagreed with one another. They disagreed about the significance of small plot points or meaning. They had different interpretations, and we had robust conversations around our Sunday night movie cadence. Ordinary acts can have an enormous impact on the intellectual development of children.
4. You don’t realize, as an adult, how much you know compared to your children.
My husband and I realized that just sharing our own knowledge with our kids had an enormous impact. For example, most adults know that to send someone to jail, they must be convicted beyond a reasonable doubt by 12 jurors. You can explain something incredibly important about our system of justice to your kids. Or maybe you know that there is dew at night because cold air holds less water. Explain that observation to your children. Or you may know that gasoline explodes to give your car engine power.
“Share interesting things you’ve learned over the years about how the world works with them.”
There are so many things that you know about that your children don’t know about. Share interesting things you’ve learned over the years about how the world works with them. Children will develop both curiosity and the habits for seeking to understand how the world works. In this way, you will raise intellectual and incredibly smart kids.
You can take things further by not only sharing knowledge but also your insights about how the world works. You can probe topics that you are less familiar with by using a smart speaker. At our dinner table, we were constantly asking Siri or Alexa facts about the world. What is the most populous country? What is the largest bridge? What is the tallest building? How was the tallest building constructed? What is the definition of democracy? Are there more democracies than autocracies? At a moment’s notice, you can find information to incorporate into dinnertime conversations.
5. Good schools emphasize decoding when teaching children to read, but there’s more.
I’m a huge believer in the importance of phonics. We use a program called “Success for All” at my schools, in which decoding is part of being a strong and avid reader. That being said, schools and parents have devalued listening to books. Listening is an incredibly valuable part of being a strong reader. When you listen to books via Audible or any other system, it frees your mind from the work of decoding and being a fluent reader and allows full focus on comprehending and enjoying. It takes a few years for children to become really good at the mechanics of reading, whereas they can listen and comprehend almost right out of the gate.
We spent a lot of time as a family listening to books to develop their interest in literature and language. It also gives the opportunity to stop and discuss and make sure everybody is following what is happening, or perhaps the significance of various inflection points, et cetera. At Success Academy we’re huge believers in Audible. Our students listen to more books than you can imagine, and Eric and I have gotten our own kids addicted to Audible. It has become part of their adult life. We think getting your kids hooked on listening to books is one of the most powerful ways to raise intellectual children.
To listen to the audio version read by author Eva Moskowitz, download the Next Big Idea App today: