So You Want Your Child To Succeed? Here's How

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | April 8, 2011 9:51 am

“What are the best books for my daughter?” “What kinds of extra curricular programs should my son be enrolled in?”

Dear Parents,

You send so many emails asking, “How do I encourage my child to pursue science?”  It’s a noble endeavor, and of course, there’s no end to possible responses. Much depends on what each individual is interested in from marine science to space. While I welcome these inquiries, here’s the best suggestion I can offer: Rather than science specifically,  focus on critical thinking!

No matter how advanced a student’s math skills or laboratory technique, it will be her ability to work through problems and develop creative solutions that sets her apart from peers. In other words, parents should do more than going through the motions for standardized test preparation, and begin early. Foster her natural curiosity about the world. Perhaps most importantly, she needs to believe in herself and recognize what she is capable of.

Sure, it sounds a bit cliche, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. More than ever before, our culture poses formidable social obstacles to success. Joe’s is right that “It’s okay to be Smart,” but “smart” doesn’t always seem adequate. Kids are bombarded with billboards, music videos, television shows, advertisements, and films telling them that they also have to look and act a certain way to be accepted. A cultural firestorm of unrealistic expectations damages self-esteem and, in turn, academic performance. Of course there’s no simple way to counter these harmful false messages, but building confidence is the place to begin.

So that’s what I hope moms and dads will continue to emphasize. And if you’re still seeking a good book to start with, my vote for elementary schoolers goes to Free To Be You And Me. (DVD and audio are even better!). For young adults, books like Tracy Kidder’s outstanding Mountains Beyond Mountains about Dr. Paul Farmer will help them recognize how one individual can have a tremendous positive impact on the world.

Good luck!


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education

Comments (10)

  1. Georg

    “”focus on critical thinking” is ok, but
    then on second place is :

    let them learn things needing a good learning ability first!.

    Children learn languages so easy, do not waste time for
    things they can learn later with good success.
    And last but not least: they should learn things they like
    and are interested in.

  2. Don

    What is critical thinking? How do you distinguish it from uncritical thinking?

  3. @1 Georg,
    Yes, learning languages and more generally, developing an appreciation of other cultures is great advice.

    @2 Don,
    Critical thinking is difficult to define, but easy to recognize. It involves creativity, curiosity, and sometimes skepticism.

  4. Carol

    Critical thinking also involves research and analysis and logic skills. Logic can be taught at an early age. Research and analysis come later, but are invaluable.

  5. kirk

    I had ‘arranged friendships’ for my children on the advice of an adolescent/pre-adolescent psychologist. Nothing – absolutely nothing – beat surrounding my three sons with others there same age who had parents as engaged as I was in immersing my children in not only critical thinking but skeptical living. Not every comrade I picked passed the likeability test but just keep pushing friends on them in a structured was. And Boy Scouts works like a charm. I found a troop with a bunch of hippy liberals – that is pretty easy to do in Austin but there is some group or organization out there that organizes fun with a solid group of peers. Read lots of books and discuss the universe at the dinner table. But surround the child with the very best cohort available.

  6. Also have your kids and your kids’ teachers spend time at Lots of great content, some specifically designed to be used with specific grade levels. Use that as a resource to help guide kids to see how science and critical thinking can be applied to all sorts of claims, not just in the science classroom or in a science book or video. Teach kids to question authority (and to distinguish authority from expertise), to expect people to answer “I don’t know” when they don’t, and to expect “but here’s how we can find out” to come immediately after such an acknowledgment.

  7. Sean McCorkle

    Good reasoning, thinking and math skills are important, and require sustained work and diligence to master.

    But thats not the most important thing. What’s really important is to impart the sheer pleasure of learning, the wonder of discovering, and the ecstasy of understanding as things of value in their lives. And above all else, natural curiosity should be treasured and nurtured and never discouraged. (Read Sagan’s “The Demon Haunted World” for his views of how parents and society unnaturally suppress our innate urge to ask questions).

    Take them to museums, planetariums, aquariums, national and state parks, mountains, oceans and deserts. Look at the sky with them, watch clouds as storms form. Show them the Moon, Saturn and Jupiter through a telescope. Let them ask questions and encourage more. Ask them questions. If you can’t answer theirs, try to come up with a plan to find the answer together. When possible, try to answer their questions by demonstration or experiment; when appropriate, encourage them to do the same on their own. Encourage them to climb hills if they want to know what’s on the other side. Take them to the library and let them check out books that might be interesting.

    Once the child knows of the pleasures to be had, they will already be motivated to do the hard work.

  8. Good advice! I wish more education policy would take it to heart. As it stands, I think U.S. education has become far too test-driven, which quashes critical thinking and love of learning. I put my son in a Montessori specifically because I felt it was the one option (apart from homeschooling) that wouldn’t smother his deep love of science or neglect reading/writing/math, etc.

    I recently had a disagreement with a parent, who thought that the school’s “interest fair” was inferior to an old-school science fair. To my mind, a kid creating and presenting a deep-learning, critical project on any topic gives them more preparation for scientific work than everyone sticking to science subjects, whether it’s what motivates them or not.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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