Can You Boost Your Child’s IQ?

What makes kids smart may surprise you

Medically Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD on December 02, 2012
6 min read

You probably already that know genetics along with good nutrition, protection from toxins, and plenty of playtime and exercise all work together to nurture a child's intelligence. But is there something more you can do to actively boost your child's IQ?

Surprisingly, most child development experts aren’t touting the flashiest new toys or computer programs or even the latest Baby Mozart video. But they do have insights you may find useful in helping your child reach their full intellectual potential.

How does a child's brain develop?

From before birth to age 4, an infant's brain grows explosively. In fact, your child's brain has reached 90% of its adult size before kindergarten. This period of great growth provides an ideal window of opportunity for learning.

But the brain doesn't stop developing at age 4. It continues to organize and restructure throughout childhood and on into early adult life, becoming more complex. Unfortunately, knowing about the brain's early growth has prompted many parents to panic about their child's IQ or push their kids into "primo preschools."

"It's a classic American concern," Ross A. Thompson, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis says, "how to accelerate learning. Many parents believe that if their children learn fast early, they will remain accelerated. But children learn best at a natural rate. Those who show early advances settle out by the time they reach grade school. Others catch up."

The early years do matter, Thompson says. "But lower circuits in the brain must be built before higher circuits, and advanced skills must be based on basic skills," he says.

Emotion drives learning

One of these basic skills involves creating a template for close relationships, usually through early attachment to parents and caregivers. Critical to your child's emotional and social development, attachment also helps build your child's intelligence.

Being attuned to your child's inner mental life helps your child's developing brain become integrated, according to Daniel J. Siegel, MD, director of the Center for Human Development at the UCLA School of Medicine. Writing in InfantMental Health Journal, Siegel, who studies how relationships affect learning, says being attuned also provides a "safety net" for your child's brain.

Pat Wolfe, an educational consultant and co-author of Building the Reading Brain, PreK-3, says, "Close, affectionate relationships throughout childhood are important, but especially when a child is little." One way to connect with your child is to listen closely and make eye contact. "If you only pretend to listen because you're distracted, kids pick up on that really fast," Wolfe says. Other ways to connect include your facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, and other nonverbal signals. Wolfe says that when your child is older, one of the best things you can do is to talk about the day.

Connecting with you helps a child's brain develop, Thompson says, because neurons get connected through social connection and language. Learning is also often motivated by close relationships. "Kids become interested in learning because learning is valuable to the people who matter," he says.

By contrast, when children don't feel safe and secure, their ability to learn is affected.

The amygdala is a part of the brain that regulates emotion. When children feel threatened, the amygdala creates a fight-or-flight response -- a chain reaction that allows emotion to overrule rational thought by "shutting down" the thinking parts of the brain. Early or long-term stress in a child's life can lead to changes in this part of the brain, making that child more susceptible to stress and less susceptible to learning. But close, loving relationships can protect against this.

Experience sculpts the brain

"The brain is the only organ in the body that sculpts itself through experience," Wolfe says. We now know that experiences actually change and reorganize the brain's structure and physiology.

Instead of seeing a child's intelligence as a dynamic process, parents too often think of the brain as a vessel that can be simply filled up with knowledge, Thompson says. But that's not the way it works, especially for young children.

"The best learning occurs through active engagement," he says. "A child is thrilled to be counting peas in the context of gardening, measuring ingredients in the context of working with a recipe, or sorting nails in the context of building a birdhouse."

Wolfe agrees, saying a variety of learning experiences in the real world are good for a child's intelligence. Even at the grocery store, children can learn a lot by weighing foods, reading labels, and counting change.

Although eliminating TV and video games may not be entirely realistic, Wolfe says that too much time with media like these puts children in a receptive mode. And that keeps them from a rich, natural interaction with the real world, which is so important for a child's brain development.

At the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, psychology professor and infant cognition specialist Lisa Oakes studies another aspect of childhood intelligence. She examines how infants categorize and make sense of the visual world --research that makes her question the push by parents to boost a child's IQ with fancy toys.

"We know that stimulation is good for the development of the brain," Oakes says. You probably know that infants need different colors and textures and experiences. "But it doesn't all need to come in one toy," she says.

From her research, she has learned that infants are more interested in the action of a toy than the outcome it produces. So babies do not need expensive gadgets with lots of "bells and whistles" to learn. But if a certain toy is fun for a parent, it may still have a benefit, she says. That's because babies learn through their parents' reactions too.

Effort and mindset

Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, has studied yet another key to building a child's intelligence. Through 20 years of research, she has found that differences in children's mindsets affect their motivation to learn and ultimately their performance in school.

Dweck learned that middle school students who believed intelligence was fixed tried to preserve their self-image by only doing what they already knew how to do well. "They didn't want to risk their precious label -- being smart," Dweck says. Their fixed mindset, ultimately, could limit the growth of their intelligence.

By contrast, kids with a "growth mindset" were attracted to challenges - even if they failed at first. These kids thought about what they would do differently next time, such as how they would study harder to score higher on a test. When asked what they would do differently, kids with a "fixed mindset" said they would study less -- or even consider cheating.

"After all, if you think intelligence is fixed and you do poorly, what are your choices?" Dweck says.

Dweck began to teach kids that the brain is like a muscle. It gets stronger with use. It makes new connections, and this can make you smarter over time. When she re-tested these students who had learned to have a "growth mindset," their grades and study habits improved considerably after only two months.

Praise the effort

Dweck began her research after seeing parents put too much emphasis on praising "intelligence" and pushing their kids. She learned early on that certain kinds of praise actually backfire.

Praising only a child's IQ or intelligence can send the message that intelligence is a natural gift and thus out of a child's control, she says. It's better instead to give kids the idea that hard work is always needed for achievement.

If you want to praise, she says, praise your child's process, commitment, the strategies that work. Focus on the learning, not just the grades. Do you tell your child, "Easy A, wow, you're smart!" Or, do you ask, "What did you learn in that class?"

Children praised lavishly for their past high performance may be harmed even more than kids who have typically done less well, Dweck says. "The high performers think it's beneath them to try hard, that it's just for dummies. There's a false promise here: You're so smart, it will just come to you." And when academic success doesn't just happen, some kids may worry that they are no longer the whiz kids they once thought they were and lose their motivation to study.

Of course, we all come with certain natural abilities, Dweck says. "But just because some have a more natural ability doesn't mean others can't learn the skill, too."

"Parents need to value learning, progress, effort, resilience," she says. "Their children will take that with them and enjoy it for a lifetime."