When I asked my teenagers for their ideas on raising smart boys, I expected them to cite all sorts of examples such as reading books, learning a musical instrument or visiting the library.
I was surprised by their nearly identical answer — "Be prepared to be very different."
My older sons and my nieces confirmed the same idea: It is much more socially acceptable for a girl to "be smart" than it is for a boy.
I realized my sons had gone to the very crux of educating boys with their first response. Google "American boys falling behind," or any sort of variation on those words, and millions (it's Google after all) of articles pop up decrying boys' lag behind girls in American schools.
An article from NPR pegs the problem: "We have lots of boys who at an early age start to think of education as being not masculine enough."
How did we get here? In the past, education was highly valued. When did "smart" equate with "uncool"? And doesn't every parent want to raise intelligent, creative children, both boys and girls?
I have ideas on some of the reasons, but I'll get to those a bit later. If you've read this far, you're the kind of parent who cares about education, so I'll offer up my best tips.
Take time to educate yourself. I'd placed this farther down on the list, but my boys insisted nothing could be more important. When parents love learning, their kids will love it too. Read the paper, listen to the radio, teach yourself an instrument or a language or any new skill, read books and talk about them.
My husband often says he doesn't think he's particularly smart; he just takes the time to learn. He's always reading out loud something from Jewish World Review, citing a story he heard on NPR or studying books on economics and history. His example fuels my boys' passion for knowledge.
Believe your child is brilliant. Shinichi Suzuki oft repeated, "Every child can learn." Einstein said, "Every child is born a genius." Not every child can become a concert violinist or a nuclear physicist, but every child can learn. We need to believe in our children's abilities. Teach your child bits of foreign language, math, science, music, etc.
Read to your kids. This advice has been given so often and expanded on so many times, I won't belabor the issue. Just don't stop reading to your kids when they learn to read. They still crave your voice and your attention.
Turn off the TV. Again, this may seem a bit obvious, but a lack of TV does more than free up time for reading and practicing the piano. By avoiding commercial television, you also avoid modern stereotypes of masculinity. Kids won't see the goofy, crude men in beer commercials and sitcoms when they don't see commercials or sitcoms at all.
Buy books. Go to the library or borrow from friends, but make sure you have plenty of books in your home. I've heard expense cited as an excuse, but with garage sales, used book stores and the library closeout shelf, you can easily amass a decent library for $10 a month. It's important to have books in which you can fold the corners and write in the margins, and to read over and over like revisiting an old friend.
Read your kids' books. At first, I did this as a precaution for my ambitious little readers. I wanted to make sure their books were age-appropriate (handing my son Stefan "Schindler's List" at age 10 was not a good idea). But as they got older, my children began to hand me books they'd read and loved.
By reading their choices, I was able to discuss themes and plotlines with them. Because I listened to their recommendations, they were more willing to listen to mine. I've read all the Artemis Fowl, Pendragon, Fablehaven and Incarceron series my boys love. They've introduced me to Brandon Sanderson's fantasy novels and spy books such as Alex Rider. I've learned to enjoy these genres I'd never found interesting before, and I believe many of the best modern writers are penning children's and young adult fiction.
In return, my children have been much more willing to read masterpieces such as "Peace Like a River," "A Tale of Two Cities," "Les Miserables" and anything and everything from C.S. Lewis.
Play an instrument. Note the emphasis on play. You don't need to raise the next Mozart (we all know his father was a bit overbearing), but thousands of studies have shown the value in learning music. Musical training can teach children sensitivity, math skills and the ability to work hard. Yes, music lessons and instruments can be expensive, but there are a thousand ways to navigate costs. Trade skills with a friend, take advantage of community programs, practice on the neighbor's piano next door, etc.
When your child finds an interest, run with it. Nothing hastens learning more than personal enthusiasm. Obsessed with dinosaurs? Check out every dinosaur book in the library and visit your local natural history museum. Rocks, trains, animals, space — same drill. Just don't be surprised when they drop that interest and move on to the next.
Be willing to place education above sports. Please don't misunderstand me; I love sports and consider myself an athlete. My children have played on numerous soccer, baseball, football, lacrosse, basketball, track, cross country, Ultimate Frisbee, wrestling and swim teams. Team and individual sports teach cooperation and hard work while developing fitness and coordination. But I believe our country's overemphasis on athletics holds the primary blame for boys' lag in education and the United States' low rankings in education worldwide.
The worship of sports and athletes contributes to the idea that "education isn't masculine enough." Ask a dozen 11-year-old boys what they want to be when they grow up, and 10 will answer that they want to be a professional athlete. While I appreciate their optimism, there's simply no way every one of these kids will grow up to reach that level. The amount of time and money invested in athletics would pay a boy back many times over if invested in education.
Use the Internet for good. Yes, the "www" can drain all our time and energy, but the educational resources are tremendous. Kids can compete on Duolingo to see who can learn the most French and Spanish, listen to a TED talk, study on Khan Academy or watch a science or history video on YouTube (they also visit Facebook and play mindless tank games, too). Truly, I detested YouTube until my boys showed me these incredible videos explaining difficult concepts: MinutePhysics, Veritasium, CGP Grey, Art of Manliness, Vi Hart and Vsauce. ThePianoGuys and Mormon.org are favorites, too.
Last, own it. I'll admit, for years, I encouraged my boys to keep their brains under a bushel — "Don't raise your hand too often." And while it's never wise to brag or act superior to anyone else, it's fine to admit you like learning. At the beginning of my third son's sophomore year, he noticed no one was answering the teachers' questions. He was often the lone sophomore in a class full of juniors and seniors, but he decided to raise his hand whenever he knew the answer. Soon, the entire class was participating.
The more our boys own their intelligence, the sooner the deficiencies in boys' education will disappear. As parents (and especially as fathers), we can make learning masculine again. We don't need to swing the pendulum back to educating boys and ignoring girls; we need to move forward to where education is a priority for everyone.
I'm convinced our generation of parents can raise the most intelligent and creative wave of children the world has yet to witness.
Writer, photographer and Utah's Young Mother of the Year, Michelle Lehnardt is raising five future fathers and one little mother. She write at scenesfromthewild.blogspot.com on chicken coops, tea parties and missing her missionary son in Russia.