How to Have Smarter Kids

By Dr. Cynthia Horner

What is intelligence?download

Intelligence is the ability to problem solve by remembering past successes and failures and imagining possibilities for the future. Intelligence is supposed to make it easier to navigate living in our world. Intelligence is measured by IQ tests, but IQ tests do not measure:

  • creative intelligence
  • practical intelligence
  • interpersonal intelligence
  • bodily kinesthetic intelligence

People with the same IQ may solve a problem with equal speed and accuracy but using different types of thought. Everyone uses some combination of intelligence related brain areas in a very personal and unique way. Real intelligence is not easy to measure.

Is intelligence fixed in our genes?

Humans have 25 thousand genes but 40 million switches that turn those genes on or turn off. Genes do determine potential but not outcome.

“Ya still gotta to dance with the one who brought ya.”


But we are not victims of our genes. What determines which switches get turned on and when?

First thing to consider is what mom experiences and what she eats before getting pregnant and during her pregnancy because it has a great effect on the genes of her offspring. A recent study found that the type of food eaten by a group non-pregnant, female mice chemically altered their DNA and these changes were passed on to their offspring. It is not as simple as not eating harmful things but eating adequate amounts of the nutrients needed for genes to switch on allowing optimal development of the brain and nervous system.

Also the hormone levels (including cortisol, insulin, testosterone and estrogen) of a pregnant woman have a direct effect on the genes and the development of her fetus’ brain and neural development. Mothers who are stressed have more cortisol and other androgen hormones like testosterone. High cortisol and testosterone during pregnancy have been shown to suppress some development of left hemisphere functions. Right hemisphere development can be suppressed by high levels of estrogen in the mother of a growing fetus.

Once born what a child experiences has the greatest effect on which genes flip on.

Experiences in the form of:

  • Environment
  • Thoughts & stress
  • Diet
  • Movement
  • Touch
  • Emotions

Touch is so important in that list that I will take a little time to explain. An infant’s brain at birth is 25% developed, with a hundred billion nerve cells. The nerve cells make many connections to other nerve cells while developing in the mother and then continue in the first years after birth resulting in some hundred trillion connections of nerve cells to other nerve cells by age three. Repeated activity of those connections strengthens or thickens the connections between nerve cells just like a dirt road that is used a lot will get paved and widened to allow more rapid travel. These connections will last for a lifetime unless a brain injury occurs. Touch and then later in the infant’s life movement is what allows for more connections. Without adequate touch and movement early in the infant’s life this opportunity is lost.  Touch has also been found to keep DNA synthesis active; babies need to be touched to grow into healthy, thinking, feeling humans.

What Can Parents do to Draw Out their Children’s Genius?

Children’s attitude toward themselves and toward learning is a major factor on children’s learning and achieving. Most people who have succeeded, have also failed many times, having the confidence in themselves to fail and learn from their failures and willingness to try new and challenging things creates smarter kids. An easy life is not a fulfilling life. The goal and fine line to walk is to challenge our kids to work hard and persevere but not push them to feeling stressed. When kids try to look smart because they are rewarded for results and not effort they will hit a wall when they come to an academic challenge. On the other hand if they are told they are limited in their abilities and this is fixed no matter what they do, or how hard they try, they will develop a hopeless attitude about their ability to learn and achieve and give up.

When kids are encouraged and rewarded to work hard for small improvements they will continue to work hard.

To promote confidence in young kids, around ages 2 to 5, ask them questions like;

What do you see?

What color is it?

What does it remind you of?

Have you seen one like it before?

To promote confidence and therefore greater intelligence in older kids encourage mistakes & trying to conquer them.

Praise the child for:

  • Their effort
  • How well they studied
  • Their perseverance
  • Being on time
  • Thinking it through

These kinds of praises encourages them to keep trying.

When you praise a child with words like the ‘greatest’ it can discourage them from doing more or doing better because they have already done ‘the best’, ‘the greatest’. Studies have shown students who are told they are smart or they are clever become much more anxious about failing and give up trying sooner.

Children of all ages don’t remember how well they did in a given task as much as they remember how they felt about the experience. Emotions and memory are closely tied. Making learning fun and working to make students feel comfortable and accepted promotes an attitude and environment that brings out the best in the children.