The key to raising brilliant kids? Play a game : Life Kit We all want our kids to succeed, but that doesn't mean running math drills. Author Kathy Hirsh-Pasek explains the "six C's" that kids need to thrive and why raising brilliant kids starts with redefining brilliant.

The key to raising brilliant kids? Play a game

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This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Anya Kamenetz.


And I'm Cory Turner. We host LIFE KIT's parenting episodes.

KAMENETZ: And so let's just put it out there. The reason why we make these episodes and why you're listening probably is because we all want our kids to be the best that they can be.

TURNER: Right? And it can be really tempting - I know - to go all out. You know, we get the latest app, run math drills with your 5-year-old because, after all, there are just a few precious years to cram them full of information, right?

KATHY HIRSH-PASEK: We want our children to be ahead. And they should be ready to be CEO of a major corporation by the time they have the footsteps into school. Well, it doesn't quite work that way.

KAMENETZ: That's Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. She's a professor of psychology at Temple University with a focus all on little kids. And she's the co-author of the book "Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children."

TURNER: Yeah. And Kathy says there's a misconception that parents need to force-feed kids reading and writing practically as soon as they're out of the womb.

HIRSH-PASEK: There's a mobile you can buy. The mobile allows you to learn six languages just because you have the mobile over the crib - puh-lease (ph).

TURNER: Right. So hold on. So, Kathy, so this is your golden opportunity now...


TURNER: ...To speak directly to all of these overzealous, anxious parents. And, full disclosure, I have been one of them at times.

KAMENETZ: Absolutely, me, too.

HIRSH-PASEK: Oh, I am, too. Every parent is.

TURNER: So explain to them why they need to cool their jets.

HIRSH-PASEK: Yeah. Cool your jets because it's healthier for your child.

KAMENETZ: Think of it this way. Do you want a precocious kid with a bunch of facts memorized? Or...

HIRSH-PASEK: Would you like to have a happy, healthy, caring, thinking - notice thinking is there - child who is going to grow up to be a collaborative person, a creative innovator and a social person while also being a good citizen?

TURNER: Ooh, I'll take door No. 2.

HIRSH-PASEK: (Laughter).

TURNER: Please.

HIRSH-PASEK: OK. So the question then becomes, how do you get there?


KAMENETZ: So in this LIFE KIT episode - bringing up brilliant kids.

TURNER: And step away from the flashcards.


KAMENETZ: Kathy, along with her collaborator Roberta Golinkoff, had been studying kids and behavior for almost 40 years.

TURNER: And one big reason Kathy has found that lots of, quote-unquote, "educational products" and apps aren't really doing anything is because they aren't tapping into how our brains actually learn.

HIRSH-PASEK: And the science says that, in fact, the human brain was actually built to endure wonderful, long-term relationships. One of my friends says it's a socially gated brain. Isn't that amazing? Think about that.

KAMENETZ: Socially gated - what does that mean?

HIRSH-PASEK: Socially gated - everything goes through the social. Everything we learn starts as collaboration and relationship. And when you think of it, we are - as Mike Tomasello, one of my colleagues says - the ultra social species. Everything is filtered through the social relationship.

TURNER: You know, you talk a lot about your six C's.


TURNER: The fundamentals, what every kid needs to thrive.


TURNER: ...In the world. And the first of the six, the most fundamental, is collaboration.

HIRSH-PASEK: 'Tis indeed.


HIRSH-PASEK: Well, if it's really the case that we have this socially gated brain and if we learn everything through relationships, then collaboration is the most foundational piece of what we are as little humans trying to become bigger humans. So the next part that's built on collaboration is communication. How do I learn the contents of your mind? Because if I can tap into your mind, Mom, I'm going to know so much more than I can do having to learn it all on my own.

KAMENETZ: Ooh, ooh, ooh, does that mean we should monologue at our children constantly and never stop talking?


HIRSH-PASEK: Monologue quite - is not quite the way to do it. It has to be dialogue.

KAMENETZ: Dialogue, OK.

HIRSH-PASEK: Yeah, yeah, that back-and-forth conversation. And, again, it's there that as parents we sometimes jump in because the baby didn't say something fast enough, and we don't want any lull in that conversation. But if we let it lull for just a moment, even 10-week-olds can start to have a conversation with us.

KAMENETZ: Kathy says communication and collaboration are both necessary for kids to learn content, the third C.

HIRSH-PASEK: And that can be reading content, writing content. You have to have strong language skills. There's also learning to learn skills under content, and that's things like learning how to focus your attention.

TURNER: Yeah, but she doesn't stop there. The world today also requires critical thinking and creative innovation and a necessary social and emotional quality - confidence.

HIRSH-PASEK: And this is a very hard one for me as a parent, and I suspect for everyone as a parent, which is our children learn the most through failure. And if we never let them fail, then they never know what it feels like to thrive and succeed. So it's growth mindset. It's grit, the perseverance to keep at it even though the tower fell down when you tried to make it high. So there's our six C's, each one built upon the other. And they cycle and cycle like a spiral staircase.


KAMENETZ: I want more examples of the six C's. And one area that I know you've done some work on is at the grocery store.

HIRSH-PASEK: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, the grocery store.

KAMENETZ: So what do the six C's look like at the grocery store?

HIRSH-PASEK: (Laughter) Well, the first thing is that when we go to the grocery store, we're often pretty rushed, you know? Like, we go in there and we seriously don't want to hear our kids. We just want to get what's on the list and get out. And we tried to change that dynamic just a little bit. So what we did is we put up these crazy signs that say, I'm a cow. Milk comes from a cow. What else comes from a cow? So we put the signs up, you know, half the time, and half the time, we had the signs down, and we were curious. Would having these silly signs make any difference to the way parents engaged in the grocery store? What were we looking for? Well, you can tell already - collaboration and communication. You got it. By gosh, if we didn't get a 33% increase in the conversations when you put the signs up.

It's interesting that you can change behavior by changing the environment around us. And that's part of what we call our playful learning landscapes experiments. I should also tell you that from another lab, Melissa Libertus and her team just put up STEM signs - science, technology, engineering and math - and just wanted to see if you could get people to talk about number. Knowing that talking about number helps - believe it or not - build number skills. Isn't that crazy?

TURNER: Well, this reminds me of the episode we did on building math skills and math confidence in kids.

HIRSH-PASEK: There you go.

TURNER: And the big takeaway for me was there are lots of little tiny things that we as parents can do every single day...


TURNER: ...To build these skills without them even feeling like math or science.


TURNER: Just use the word perimeter. Talk about shape and size and distance.


TURNER: I want to go back to the sort of intersection of collaboration...


TURNER: ...Communication and content and I suppose critical thinking skills because it seems to me in a classroom context...


TURNER: I have a 7 and a 10-year-old. Are they more likely to internalize to learn to pick up the content and become better critical thinkers if they're doing that largely in a really collaborative context, if they're doing a lot more group work, if they're working with kids of various skill levels? How important is it to smush the desks together and get kids working together?

KAMENETZ: And is that really the answer?

HIRSH-PASEK: Well, yeah, I don't know that just smushing will work, but it's a little more like creating a common goal and then trying to solve that goal together. And when you do that, it's just so much richer. But let me give you the sense of how that collaboration can work. So I was taking my granddaughter Ellie, who was 3 at the time - we were just, like, marching over to the playground. And there happened to be, like, a little forest area along the way. And so I pointed out that this really cool thing happened whenever there was, like, a break in the trees. I didn't tell her that part. I said, oh, my gosh, what is that? She goes, I don't know. I said, I think it's your shadow. That's so cool. And she tried to chase her shadow for a little bit. And then we went under a tree again. And, of course, the shadow disappeared. And then we came out from under the tree, and there it was again. So together, we were doing a science experiment. And I said, I wonder if we could predict when you're going to see your shadow. So we did. And then we tried to get to a hypothesis of when we might see that shadow and, by gosh, if she didn't derive it.


KAMENETZ: So one of the things I love about "Becoming Brilliant" is the way that it puts us on a learning curve as parents as well. And I want to know if you'd illustrate for us a little bit about how the six C's work around things like getting our kids to help out around the house or...

TURNER: Yes, please

KAMENETZ: ...Motivation in school. Because we don't - when we put those in a separate category, I think some of us sometimes have our teaching hats on, but then there's, like, got to get the kids out the door - right? - basic mechanics and we're not thinking about building their brains but obviously we are, right?

HIRSH-PASEK: Yeah. Let's talk about that for just a second. So there are fun games you can play that really, you know, kind of build on the six C's and get the motivation up. We had a fun game in our house, too. I have three sons and my sons seem to have completely different tastes. One seemed only to like dairy products but didn't like meat products. One only liked meat products but not dairy products. And the third decided he didn't like anything but pizza and bagels. All right. So our game was, OK, we get to figure out where we're going for dinner tonight.


HIRSH-PASEK: All right?

TURNER: This is a big issue in our household right now.

HIRSH-PASEK: Right. So you get to make your three best arguments for where we're going to go for dinner this night. So my youngest son gets to fourth grade. In fourth grade, they had just learned the five-paragraph essay.



HIRSH-PASEK: And he comes home and he says to me, Mom. I said, what? He said, everyone at school today learned the five-paragraph essay, and I was thinking to myself it seemed really hard for everybody but not for me because I always did the where do you want to go to dinner game.


HIRSH-PASEK: So they go together, and they build on one another.

KAMENETZ: Well, I'm just really glad that you brought up play because we really wanted to talk about it and flipping the script a little bit and thinking about it from the child's perspective.


KAMENETZ: Why have you become such a huge advocate for play even to the point of getting doctors to prescribe it?

HIRSH-PASEK: (Laughter) Well, the reason is because it turns out that you learn better when things are joyful than when they're not joyful. So I bet your kids would help you a whole lot more if you made a game from the darks and the whites in that laundry room, OK? Maybe you just have to throw it from different lines, a three-point line, the two-point line, maybe even have the three-quarter-point line and the one-quarter and they do fractions, right?

TURNER: Oh - or we shoot baskets and my son has to fold everything that I make in the basket, and I have to fold everything he makes in the - hey.

HIRSH-PASEK: There you go.


HIRSH-PASEK: We're talking about it. So it should be fun.


HIRSH-PASEK: Secondly, play is active, not passive. And it turns out the way we learn is active, not passive. When we're sitting there, you know, like a couch potato, we aren't learning as much as when we're doing, all right? It should be meaningful as opposed to meaningless. So when we're memorizing flashcard stuff, that's not play. That gets boring really, really fast. Even if you dress it up - Habgood once called it chocolate-covered broccoli. OK. It's still broccoli, OK? So it has to be meaningful. Generally, it's socially interactive as opposed to solo. It doesn't mean it can't be solo, but it's better when there's somebody else doing it. And it's iterative, OK? That means each time you revisit it, there's something new to discover about it. So I think you can have true play where the kid is the director, not the adult. And adults out there - don't interfere by jumping in and deciding what's going on with your child's play. Help by setting the environment and going with their story and supporting it.


KAMENETZ: This gets you back to the beginning.

HIRSH-PASEK: It does, indeed. It does, indeed.

KAMENETZ: (Laughter).

HIRSH-PASEK: You know, I will give one other thing that I think is just the most important thing I've learned through the years, not only as a psychologist but as parent. And that is that we spend a lot of time trying to make our kids in our image, what we want, the resume that we want to brag to with our friends. And I'd like to suggest a twist. How can we better support our kids to be who they need to be in their image? I think it's the most powerful thing we can do.

KAMENETZ: This is what I love about Kathy's work, Cory, is just the consistent reminder that we as parents have so much to learn from just listening to our kids and, you know, taking a step back once in a while.

TURNER: Yeah. And we should never assume that we know what they should be learning. Be patient. Put the flashcards down and just listen.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, absolutely.

TURNER: If you want more LIFE KIT for all your parenting needs, we've got the episodes. We got one on how to make math less scary.

KAMENETZ: Also an episode about how to deal when your kid wants to play with a toy you just find horrendous.

TURNER: You can find them all at

KAMENETZ: And as always, we've got a completely random life tip, this time from listener Amanda Berabach (ph).

AMANDA BERABACH: When you're writing an email, wait until the very end to add a recipient. That way you never accidentally send an email that's not finished or you haven't spell-checked yet.

TURNER: If you've got a good tip or want to suggest a topic, send us a note. We're at

KAMENETZ: This episode was produced by Meghan Keane. Beth Donovan is the senior editor.

TURNER: Music by Nick DePrey and Bryan Gerhart. I'm Cory Turner.

KAMENETZ: I'm Anya Kamenetz.

TURNER: Thanks for listening.

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