Do you have wild and crazy dreams for your darlings, ones that may have started in the cradle? Perhaps you envision any or all of the following:

  • Babies who spring from the womb talking and walking
  • Preschoolers who read encyclopedias and compute algebra problems
  • Kids who make the honor roll every semester and receive so many first-place blue ribbons in the science fair that NASA calls
  • High schoolers who lead the school play, are first chair in the orchestra, and score so well on college boards that every Ivy League college sends four-year scholarship offerings

These goals, in addition to being a bit unrealistic, demonstrate only one aspect of being smart. Truly smart kids need more than lofty goals and pipe dreams to make it in today’s cutthroat world.

The idea of raising well-rounded, smarter kids can be daunting, and, sadly, no easy formula exists. Kids are as complex, varied, and exciting individuals as you are. The good news is that your child has a natural desire to do well. Your job as parent is to bring out this quality and cherish it until the day your kids leave home, and then some. Doing well involves your nurturing traits such as drive, optimism, creativity, and common sense.

Nothing beats drive

Being smart involves the drive to succeed, no matter which or how many obstacles cross your child’s path. Drive gets you started, and then keeps you going. It challenges you to succeed. Even if your child proves exceptionally book smart, without drive to use the information in a practical way, the facts lead to nowhere.

The best part about drive is that it fuels itself. Interest in throwing a ball leads to pitching little league, which leads to playing on a school team. Some unidentifiable inner resource creates the quest for knowledge. Call it a love of learning or an adventurous spirit. The pleasure is as much — or more — in the doing as in reaching the goal.

Encouraging kids

Children drive themselves almost from birth. They reach for the next step along the path to independence. Your healthy baby:

  • Cries to communicate to you when he needs attention
  • Roots until he finds food to suck
  • Pushes and pulls until he rolls over, sits, and stands
  • Moves about until he crawls, walks, and climbs stairs

Keep encouraging your child, and the drive to succeed kicks in. Potty training, picking out numbers and letters, drawing pictures, tying shoelaces, reading a book independently, playing an instrument — all are important milestones. With each achievement, your child gains the strength and confidence to try new adventures (although some, like drawing on walls, you may not appreciate). Encouraging these endeavors builds motivation to succeed that lasts a lifetime.

Not squelching drive

Every child possesses drive — unless it’s stifled. Repeated putdowns, disinterest on your part, or minimizing what your child finds important goes a long way toward smothering drive.

For example, a parent can stifle drive when a child spontaneously offers creepy treasures, such as a large caterpillar cocoon. Your first reaction, if you’re truly bug-phobic and ignorant about the subject, may be, “Yuck! No bugs in this house. End of story.” Stifled. Completely. Instead, consider Plan B: Tuck away the bug house in a safe haven to watch it hatch. Go to the library to find books about the care and feeding of future butterflies and moths. Have your child invite friends to see her treasure. And when a colorful winged creature emerges months later, set it free and celebrate.

Think about the following ways to encourage drive in your kids:

  • Cherish mud pies, lightning bugs, and dandelion fuzz. Consider your responses to the gross stuff kids bring home and whether these reactions establish, or squelch, the drive to learn more and the interest to deepen.
  • Let the laundry wait another day, if you see the first sun in six days. Take time to explore your kids’ discoveries when they happen.
  • Talk with helium you inhale from a balloon or concoct a baking soda volcano. Figure out what’s happening in these and other situations. Help your kids find magic in everyday scientific endeavors.
  • Encourage effort and always giving a best effort over results. When your child shows you a picture or story, ask questions to decipher and extend the learning involved in creating the work. Ask what else could be added. Praise the hard work to make whatever treasure you are witnessing.
  • Reinforce how earning money helps to buy CDs, books, and other valuables your child wants. Plant seeds of desire that can be satisfied through hard work and increased knowledge.
  • Expose your child to volunteer work, such as at a food bank. Talk about helping those who are less fortunate, but also discuss how to stay out of similar situations.
  • Allow a healthy dose of competitiveness and challenge to creep into your family activities once in a while.

Even when you give textbook responses to all your kid’s curiosities (and no parent does that), your job of instilling the drive to do the best isn’t easy. Many forces work against you. The most obvious are TV, the stress of two-wage-earner and single-parent families, and less family time together for any number of reasons.

Consider, too, the rich and famous who boast how they managed to succeed without doing well in school. President George W. Bush tells Yale graduates that being a C student gets you elected president. Actor George Clooney boasts to television viewers that he ducked out of college early. Although you may believe these folks epitomize drive because they achieved success without being the sharpest tool in the shed, they don’t send the right message to kids that the drive for knowledge equals success.

Willingness to work works magic

The sooner your kids appreciate the value of work, the more successful they will be. Work is part of life. You work to earn money, put food on the table, and keep your homes orderly and clean. For your kids, work involves schoolwork, homework, and teamwork at home and in the community. Becoming a responsible, committed worker is one of life’s lessons.

Clear links exist between a positive work ethic and success. Studies show that your hard-working 10-year-old has a greater chance for success later in life than the slacker kid next door. In fact, the willingness to work overrides IQ or family economic levels. Establishing a work ethic at an early age brings less unemployment and more fulfilling relationships all around later.

When your kids are able to cheerfully labor at a task until it’s complete, they beat their chests and say, “I did it!” Developing a positive work ethic provides other benefits, too:

  • Sense of achievement
  • Self-confidence
  • Awareness of strengths and weaknesses
  • Respect for rules and authority
  • Skills to cooperate with others to get a job done
  • Ability to conscientiously continue until a mental or physical task is complete, in other words, self-discipline