How to Raise a Smart Kid

“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”, or, if you read the “Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance“, it is “1% inspiration, 29% good instruction and encouragement, and 70% perspiration”.

How to Raise a Smart Kid

Indeed, science is telling us to forget about in-born genius, special talents and other innate qualities that we believe to be responsible for creating geniuses in our midst.  If you read the findings from New Scientist, you’ll soon discover that in the battle between nature and nurture it turns out that nurture plays a much bigger role in churning out smart kids than previously thought.  It appears that genetics is not nearly as important as we believe and the critical factor is really the environment in which our children grow up in.

This rather interesting topic was brought to my attention by my SIL who watched a documentary following the efforts of a Hungarian father who raised three daughters to become chessmasters based on his theory that geniuses are made, not born.  By cultivating an interest in chess and providing every opportunity to develop and hone their skills in playing chess, the Hungarian was able to raise his daugthers to the level of chessmasters.

The key to becoming a genius in any particular area (be it sports, science, music, etc.) therefore lies in your child having an interest in the subject, the dedication to pursue excellence and a conducive environment to cultivate your child’s skills and knowledge in the subject.

In fact, I think the description “genius” creates a misleading perception because society tends to hold the misconception that genius is innate.  The fallacy lies in the belief that you don’t have to work at becoming a genius, but that it is something you either are or you aren’t.  I think the term “expert” would be a better description because that is essentially how genius is achieved – a beginner who, through years of training and honing of skills and knowledge, eventually garners enough information on the subject to be deemed an “expert”.

In a number of studies on the theory behind geniuses being made not born, they examined chessmasters and their ability to manipulate vast quantities of information.  What they discovered was that when a chessmaster plays a game of chess, they are accessing the part of the brain that a regular person might use to recall the features from the face of a family member.  A chessmaster is essentially no more skilled at memory recall or general analysis than the average chess player.  Their ability to play chess at such levels is derived from their experiences in playing and studying the game.

For instance, in a study, chessmasters and novices were asked to examine a chessboard with pieces in a fixed position for a short period of time and then asked to reconstruct the chessboard based on what they could remember.  The novices could barely remember where the pieces were after 30 seconds of studying, but the chessmasters could recreate the chessboard correctly only after a few seconds of perusing the board.  This was because the chessmaster has access to thousands of images of chessboard positions in his memory so he can break up the chessboard into clusters.  The positions of the chess pieces form recognisable patterns in the mind of a chessmaster, whereas, to a novice, it is just a chessboard with random chess pieces.

Next the chessmasters were asked to memorise the position of chess pieces that were randomly placed on a chessboard (i.e. the pieces were not in positions that would have resulted from natural play of the game) and they found that the chessmasters were not as effective in remembering the exact positions of all the chess pieces. This is because the randomly placed chess pieces did not conform to game patterns they could recall in their memory.

There is an article that describes essentially what the documentary covered, called “The Expert Mind“, that explains this whole theory in much greater detail.  It is a bit of a long read but an interesting one.

I guess it explains something that I realised some time back when I did an IQ test.  The test was based on questions that assumed a certain level of knowledge learned from school and if you never studied that stuff, you would surely do very poorly in the IQ test even if you were “brighter than the average Joe”.  It made me realise that IQ tests weren’t a very good measure of intelligence because the test calculated your intelligence score based on assumed knowledge.

So if we assume that you can raise a smart kid rather than having to genetically create one, what can parents do to help their children reach this potential?  According to an article from Scientific American Mind on “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids“, don’t tell your child he’s smart.

Yup, you read that right – DON’T.  The problem with telling your child he’s smart is that it puts him into a limited mindset.  He starts to take his “innate intelligence” for granted and assume that no extra effort is necessary.  Such beliefs makes a child see challenges, mistakes and the need to exert effort as a threat to their ego as opposed to being an opportunity to improve.  Then, when faced with work that is no longer easy for him, he begins to lose confidence and the motivation to keep trying.

A limited mindset inhibits growth and the desire to keep pushing boundaries to improve oneself.  It creates a state called “learned helplessness” where we believe we can’t achieve something regardless of whether we trully can or cannot.  As modern child disciplinarians will encourage you to focus on your child’s behaviour rather than the child, the better thing to do when trying to encourage a “growing mindset” is to focus on your child’s efforts rather than his “innate intelligence”.

If only someone had explained this to me when I was in school…  All through highschool I was an academic achiever and praised for being “smart”.  When I finally got to University and was thrown amongst “smarter” students, I suddenly felt very stupid and wondered if I had been faking my intelligence all this while.  I felt like a pretender trying to pass off as a bright student when in reality it was effort that would have gotten me there.  I crumbled under the expectation that I was supposed to be smart and discovered the awful secret that I was just mediocre.

That also explains why I never excelled in sports in school but only realised my “potential” when I started running and rock climbing after I graduated and joined the workforce.  I always thought I wasn’t “gifted” in sports when the reality was I just hadn’t been given the opportunity to get good at it.  In a way, I think my belief that I didn’t have talent in sports was what helped me to achieve a higher standard in climbing.  In my belief that I wasn’t talented, I trained twice as hard, if not more so, than my other climbing friends in order to keep up with them.  All that training then took me to a level I never would have thought possible for someone like me.

In a nutshell, if you want your child to excel in anything that they do, teach them how to focus, how to work hard for what they want and to look at life’s challenges as exciting and fun.  If you want your child to become a genius (or expert) in any field, help them foster a deep interest in that particular field and then expose them to the right environment to cultivate their skills.

For instance, the Hungarian father who raised three chessmaster daughters brought his daugthers to watch people playing chess, he took them to chess clubs, and gave them opportunities to compete in the game.  In essence he gave them every opportunity to learn more about playing the game and to gain experience playing the game.

Essentially, to get good at anything, you have to put in the hours of practice, focus on your weaknesses and continuously work at improving your skills.  Even people like Tiger Woods, Mozart and Thomas Edison weren’t born brilliant – they might have had an aptitude and a potential for what they did but they certainly didn’t get there by kicking back and taking breaks.  It was through having the right environment and years of practice, study and sustained effort that they achieved what they have in life.

And that is how you can raise a smart kid.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

4 thoughts on “How to Raise a Smart Kid

  1. That’s really great advice! I have to train myself not to say “clever boy” now. Sigh… lots of retraining I’ve had to do since I became a mom. For the better, for the most part.


  2. I’m truly enjoying your insightful articles! Well I think when people say that “genius is inborn”, they mean that it is something that has to be developed from early childhood. One can easily become skillful at something by putting in hours of practice. However, tastefulness and the sense for aesthetic is a product of the sum of significant human experiences a person goes through from childhood up to the present. Ultimately, parents have the power to “make” a child’s artistic genius by screening the kind of stimulus their child experiences while growing up.


  3. I’m glad you find them useful. Even as an adult I sometimes find myself limited in my achievements when I make the mistake of assuming I am not naturally talented or gifted in an area and therefore cannot perform as well as others. I think that it is an important lesson to impart to our children that their abilities improve with work and that there really is no glass ceiling if we seek to allow our children to achieve their full potential.


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