This past week has been a momentous one for our family: our fourteen-year-old son has received letters of acceptance from the best public and private high schools in New York City. This has not happened because we are lucky or because we have a lot of money. Our son’s hard work and focus, as well our creating an environment at home for learning beyond school, have been keys to his success. I contrast my son’s school application experience with my own. I went to a poor high school on the Mexican-American border in which a majority of the students probably did not attend college, yet I was successful in El Paso and later at Harvard and Yale because of similar practices at home. How can we encourage our kids to excel in school? This is what I have learned from my parents, and as a parent.
Read to your children early, and regularly, when your kids can’t even walk across the living room floor. Reading to very young children establishes an emotional bond with reading, and with you, a bond they want to recreate as they get older. Laura and I read to both of our sons every night, for about half an hour each, for years. Not surprisingly, both our sons are voracious readers, reading about two or three books a week. We read, they watch us read, we’ve read with them, we buy books and regularly visit libraries, and we limit TV time. All these things create an environment of reading for recreation, to explore ideas, to revel in the magic of storytelling.
Give your children the space and attention to follow their intellectual interests. I loved creating gadgets and traps as a kid in Ysleta, all manner of Rube Goldberg machines. My father allowed me to use his tool shed, to experiment with his construction materials, to bring back ‘junk’ from the dump, which for me was treasure. He taught me how to use his tools; he taught me how to use a LeRoy for drafting when I expressed an interest in his work. Similarly my younger son loves to build, and we often cart old computers, monitors, and fax machines we find on the street for my son to create something new with them. It is about paying attention to what your child is interested in, and giving him or her the space and opportunity to follow that interest.
Teach your child the value of hard work and limits. This was what I told my kids. ‘As long as you do well in school, you have your freedom, your TV time, your time on the computer. But if you are not finishing your homework on time, and finishing it well, then I will be on you like a rash.’ Now I rarely have to tell them anything, because we made it a practice for them to finish their homework first, right after school, before they turn on the TV, have a playdate, or just relax. It was a work habit that became their habit over time. I do not expect them to be perfect; I just want them to live up to their potential. It is gratifying to see the results, and how they have internalized doing well in school for their benefit, and not for mine.
Love your kids, and listen to them carefully. Remember, it is about time with them, and guiding them to become the best person they want to be, and not about money or fancy trips or false accolades. Sometimes I have to tease out of my children an issue that is bothering them. At other times I see an issue, overscheduling for example, that they are grappling with, but have not yet identified. You sit down and talk to them, not to tell them what to do, but to brainstorm the problem, to offer possible solutions, to get them to resolve the problem in a way that works for them. Just letting them know that they are not alone and that they can bring problems to you to discuss is already a victory in your relationship with your child. It is hard work and time-consuming, and I have been humbled repeatedly by the process. But I adapt and learn, and I always keep trying to be a better father.