Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Wondering how to make your child smarter (and if that’s even possible)? Before you splurge on dubious brain-boosting toys, games, and videos, it might be worth focusing your attention a little closer to home. And by that, we mean your parenting style. 

Research shows that there is a strong association between parenting styles and cognitive development. And more specifically, that practicing responsive parenting—understanding your child’s emotional and physical needs, and reacting to them appropriately and consistently—can have a significant impact on intelligence, as well as emotional and physical wellbeing. 

The World Health Organization summarized the impact that studies found from this kind of parenting: “Maternal responsiveness in early childhood was associated with social competence and fewer behavioral problems at three years; increased intelligence quotient (IQ) and cognitive growth at four-and-a-half years; school achievement at seven years; as well as higher IQ and self-esteem, and fewer behavioral and emotional problems at age 12.”  

Sounds good, right? But what exactly is responsive parenting and how do we do it? Which specific actions have scientists highlighted as fostering intelligence and why? Let’s take a look at six simple ideas you can try today.

Practice Responsive Parenting!


Start From Birth

Don’t wait until your child has reached a particular age or milestone before tuning into them and responding to them in kind. One study showed that mothers’ sensitive behavior towards and language with their five-month old babies—long before infants can speak words—had a positive ripple effect on those children’s core language skills up to four years later. And kids who start school with strong verbal skills do better in their academic and social-emotional growth later.   


Act Lovingly

Parents who consistently behave affectionately and emotionally support their children will nurture their kids’ developing self-regulation skills and increase the chances of them forming a secure attachment bond. What happens when a young child feels like mom and dad are a safe home base? They develop not only an increased ability to communicate their thoughts and needs, but also a greater interest and willingness to explore the world, leading to more learning. 


Support Focus and Problem-Solving

Young attention spans develop gradually. And one way to help kids focus is to structure activities and play in ways that help them build up to a more active or independent role in time. That could mean engaging together in a puzzle, for example, and gently helping your child maintain focus by talking through problem-solving together, rather than redirecting or distracting them as soon as frustration crops up. The idea is that eventually your child will be able to regulate their behavior and figure things out for themselves. According to the same study that highlighted the importance of loving parenting, infants who had responsive mothers showed greater problem-solving skills than those who didn’t.


Make Plenty of Time and Space for Play

Play is crucial for learning and brain development, and it’s linked with improved attention, language and math skills, problem-solving, and reasoning. Young children with responsive parents can be free and supported to engage with play more deeply, and so display more complex play skills than those without. Honoring your child’s need for play and your role within that is a great way to foster their cognitive and emotional skills for years to come. This can look like responding positively to their play initiatives (for example, joining their make-believe games), standing by as a nurturing observer or engaged commentator as they play, or helping them explore or regulate their emotions as they play.  


Encourage Early Remembering

Being able to talk about the past is a key language milestone, and it’s also an important achievement in children’s communicative and cognitive development. How can parents nurture the development of this skill? Ask questions! One study showed that responsive mothers who frequently asked their toddlers about past events could help in boosting short and long-term recollection and building autobiographical memory. You can ask your little ones about their earliest memories or about past experiences, and you can model recollections by telling stories of your own!      


Take Turns In ‘Conversation’

When it comes to the role of parents in cognitive development, positive use of language and communication plays a key role, so it’s worth paying attention to how that looks in your family, especially in terms of your responsiveness. 


In early talk with babies and kids, timely back-and-forth exchanges between a child and a grown-up, or vice-versa, are known as conversational turns. Simple yet powerful, they boost cognitive development, and are linked to increased connectivity between two key language areas of the brain and higher IQ in later childhood. Good to know: The “responses” in conversational turns don’t have to be recognizable words—that means a baby’s coos or a toddler’s made-up lingo all count, as long as the caretaker responds to those vocalizations within five seconds. 


Parents eager to get conversation flowing with their little ones can try simple tactics like turning daily routines and activities into opportunities for chatting, making screen-time more interactive by talking about what’s happening on-screen, and avoiding interruptions. Our tips for engaging kids during read-alouds work well for engaging small kids in conversation during non-reading situations, too. And check out our Everyday Literacy collection of activities for ideas of fun ways to mix print awareness and pre-reading or reading skills into everyday life, as well.


 And those who want to take conversations with infants to a deeper level can use relevant and descriptive language, back up spoken words with physical gestures, and modify their responses in line with their child’s developing skills. For example, stick to very simple language for the youngest babies and incorporate more complex turns of phrase or questions as their vocabulary and skills grow.

Have a brain-boosting, responsive parenting tip to share? We’d love to hear it!