We want the best for our children, and one of the best things we can do for them is instill a love of learning.

Think of someone you know who lives by this, and you’ll see someone who can create a fulfilling existence wherever they are and whatever they’re doing. Work is filled with new opportunities, because they have a willingness to take on challenges and adapt. Home life is always rich, because it’s filled with hobbies and various interests.

As a parent, you’ll want to instill this love of learning early on. If your children’s experience of learning is engaging and rewarding from the start, you’ll have a better chance of leading them to the good life — where they move with confidence whatever direction they choose.

BEGIN EARLY

It starts young — very young. Toddler through preschool is the golden age to cultivate the love of learning, because at this age children learn very naturally. Unlike older kids, they are blissfully unaware of grades, their futures and how they measure up to their peers. They explore and learn from a pure love of the experience. Here are three tips for the very young:

  • Read, read, read: Even from a very young age, children gain many benefits when you read to them. Even infants pick up language, pre-literacy and social skills just from the act of being read to. Make trips to the library, and keep plenty of reading materials around the house.
  • Take the multipurpose approach to toys: Be choosy when it comes to your child’s playthings. Toys like crayons, cars, train sets, dolls, action figures and LEGO Bricks offer endless possibilities when it comes to imaginative play. In addition to that, invest in some bins and put the toys in rotation, so fewer toys are out at any given time.
  • Support their interests: If your children gravitate toward a given area, whether it’s dinosaurs, airplanes or dogs, look for opportunities to support their interests. Along with checking out stacks of books from the library, keep your eyes open for events, museums and other real-world opportunities further adventures and exploration.

CULTIVATE A CULTURE OF LEARNING

We get it. With kids, who has time for hobbies? Ideally, though, if you can still find time for a hobby or two, you’re setting the example that spare time provides possibilities beyond just fun and relaxation — you can be in pursuit of something. Even if you’re not big on hobbies, there are still things you can do to inspire a love of learning.

  • Explore together: Children ask tons and tons of questions. If you were to review these at the end of the day, you might be amazed at the scale and range of their queries. When they lob one your way that is beyond your knowledge, don’t just respond, “I don’t know.” Finish the thought: “Let’s see if we can find the answer.” Then open a reference book, hop online or visit a library and check out a couple of age-appropriate books. Follow up with an outing that sheds more light on the topic. You’ll build a wonderful connection and send a message to your children that their curiosity matters.
  • Rethink your own downtime: It’s easy to flop on the couch and stream your favorite show at the end of a long week, or mindlessly scroll through your phone while the kids are scampering on the playground. Up your spare-time game and try even small things to show that you, too, are in pursuit of exploration and learning. Even bringing a book to the playground will send a positive example.
  • Talk through challenges: As we’ve blogged in the past, when your child gets stuck, struggles and feels frustrated, the last thing you want to do is swoop in and come to the rescue. Here’s where you want to think of yourself a coach, someone who soothes and refocuses the effort. Try some calming techniques such as taking deep breaths, and ask some leading questions, so your child can learn to think their way through the challenge.

WHEN LEARNING GETS TOUGH

The hope is, once you cultivate learning, kids can view the tough subjects at school as challenges, and realize that effort and persistence will help them find a way through the thicket. But sometimes frustration happens and they shut down. As school become more about routine, completing assignments and earning grades, it can make the process of learning much less fun for some kids.

It’s frustrating, but look at it this way: What you have is a situation where the child needs to learn to overcome these psychological humps, and that’s an important life skill, too. Here are some practical strategies to help them through it.

Should you reward? 

One way to beat the power struggles is to offer a reward: “Keep those grades up and we’ll do something fun. Memorize three more multiplication problems and you’ll get candy. Clean your room, and you can play video games.”

But there are many warnings out there about using rewards. Does that mean rewards are bad? On one hand, some experts embrace rewards, saying that sticker charts and prizes can be useful in getting kids over that hump and give them that much needed push to develop a habit and master a skill.

Others are strong believers in the power of positive reinforcement. Catch them being good, or doing something you want them to do and, boom! You’ve created a positive connection with the desired behavior.

If you choose to use rewards, it’s important to understand the message you’re sending.

Bottom line, make rewards specific and give them immediately. If the power of the reward falls off quickly, ask yourself if there are underlying reasons. Perhaps the child doesn’t see the intrinsic value of the activity. One way over this hump is to use gentle nudging, with lots of context. They may need to see the big picture — we do this because it’s the right thing to do. Maybe it’s an important life skill, or an important steppingstone for better things.

“First, we let kids know what’s important to us and why,” says Alfie Kohn, author of the book “Punished by Rewards.” “Second, we engage children’s minds, helping them to reflect on — indeed, to wrestle with — moral questions.”

Help them conquer this common motivation killer

We’ve all had that colleague who was deeply unhappy about the new software training. Did that person remind you of anyone?

How about your fourth grader putting up a battle over getting their homework done, which features triple-digit-long division? It’s not just you — they really do have something in common. They are pushing back because they feel incompetent. What makes it worse for them is seeing others around them learning without any effort.

As long as they don’t do the task, they won’t have to face their incompetence. When you think about it, it’s a pretty neat, if short-sighted, technique to survive those icky feelings. Of course, the real cure for incompetence can take some effort and hard work. How do you get them there?

  • Just do it: Throughout the process, make your expectations clear that school needs their best effort. That means avoidance is not an option. On the other hand, you can be their helper and advocate in making sure they can find what they need to master the topic that baffles them. It may be time to work with a tutor or sign on for extra after-school sessions to get one-on-one time with the teacher.
  • Strategize: Sometimes the task may seem too large, too complicated, too monstrous, and it just makes your young learner freeze up — especially when they can’t make out a path that will lead them out of the thicket. That’s where you come in. Together, break it down into smaller tasks, create a list and make sure they’re staying on track to get the list done.
  • Ask questions: This is related to the above tip. When teasing out the steps to solve a problem, make sure that your child is engaged and involved with the solution. They’ll feel more ownership of the task, which empowers them. Ask guiding questions and brainstorm together.
  • Be patient: It may take a lot of time, but once kids overcome the incompetence hump, subjects should become more enjoyable.

Cultivating a love of learning is one of the best gifts you can give your child. With these tips, you can lay the foundation to help them live the good life.