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Teaching your child what he needs to survive in the 21st century

SUPER KIDS stay up late at night, not smoking pot or hanging out, but writing term papers and studying calculus and putting on plays and laying out the school newspaper. They not only make good grades, they also play sports, learn languages, talk to computers, and date. They’re self-assured, competitive, and they know they’re going to make it.

They’re going to make it not only because they’re good in school, but also because they’re good at something else, too: writing, music, science, math. College admissions officers compete for them the way coaches compete for All-State halfbacks. Super kids get recruiting letters and unsolicited scholarships from colleges all over the country. They’re on the lists in such scholarship competitions as the National Merit Competition and TACT (the Teen Age Citizen Tribute, sponsored by The Dallas Morning News and the Zale Corporation and made up of students recognized for leadership and scholastic achievement). When they don’t choose among the schools in Texas, super kids have the pick of places like Yale and Stanford and Bryn Mawr and Harvard. Super kids don’t all have the IQ’s of geniuses, but they are all bright. They don’t all make perfect grades, but they all handle schoolwork with an ease and concentration that sometimes creates envy in their classmates. They are not always brought up in “All-American” families with a father working and a mother staying at home; they also come from families with working mothers and from single parents.

Super kids can’t be planned. They just seem to happen. Breeding helps, but it is not a guarantee. A lottery has been built into the genetic code, assuring that super parents may be blessed with merely average children, and merely average parents may be blessed with super kids. If the genetic dice roll the right way, parents may have to do little more than provide food, clothing, shelter, and love and then get out of the way.

Most parents aren’t that lucky. Their kids are going to hate English and will be more interested in the symmetry of girls than non-euclidian geometry-more interested in fast cars and the right clothes than speed-reading and the right university.

But parents can do a few things to improve the odds of their children making it. Most of these involve money, but not all do. Just staying at home and talking to a child for the first three years of its life can be a decisive factor in its intelligence and well-being, psychologists say. That can cost the parents three years of a mother’s or father’s income, depending on which one of them stays home.

In fact, if you want to give your child the best of everything, don’t wait until he or she pops into the world to start doing it. Important development begins at the moment of conception right there in mommy’s womb. And while obstetricians and pediatricians say there aren’t any wonder drugs or known ways to make your kid smarter, there are some definite don’ts and a few ways to help preserve whatever is genetically feasible.

Consider this fact: after 28 weeks gestation, the unborn child has all the brain neurons it’s ever going to have. Most of this depends on heredity and genes. But obstetricians warn about a few known dangers- rubella infection increases the risk of brain damage in the early months of pregnancy; excessive alcohol consumption can lead to smaller brain size. Environmental chemicals are also more dangerous during the first months of life. Basically, mothers should give up all the “bad” stuff: alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, caffeine. The only thing that doesn’t hurt your baby is sex. At least, until the very end of pregnancy, when it’s impossible anyhow.

Cigarette smoking has shown more of an impact on infant size than development; smoking mothers tend to give birth to smaller babies. But who knows what nicotine does to brain cells? And the caffeine controversy continues. Researchers tend to believe that caffeine consumption, especially during the first four months of development, can adversely affect cell development. No absolute studies have been made on marijuana; and the effects of microwave ovens haven’t yet been thoroughly determined, so doctors warn pregnant women to stay away from them while they are in use.

Of course, you’ll hear about women who do all the “wrong” things during pregnancy and give birth to fat, happy, normal babies. But unlike 20 years ago when OBs were handing out all kinds of drugs during pregnancy, the current mood is more conservative: Don’t take anything before consulting your doctor. (Conversely, question everything your doctor prescribes. There’s current controversy over Bendectin, a drug prescribed for morning sickness. Some claim it acts as a teratogen.)

Doctors also warn pregnant women to stay out of hot tubs and very hot bath water, fearing the extreme temperatures can cause birth or brain defects. And they say good nutrition can help development. Nutritionalists recommend a diet high in proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Health food experts claim phosphorus improves the brain, stimulating memory and retention. Just in case they’re right, you may want to include plenty of seafood in your diet before the end of the 28th week.

Then, if you want to try the optimum, see what it’s like to spend nine months without a drop of liquor, a cigarette, coffee, tea, soda, any drugs or pills, or grass. At least then you can tell Junior it’s his fault he’s flunking out of Yale, not yours.

A Super Infant

EDUCATORS SAY parents should not wait until their child nears school age to begin stimulating development of art, music, and overall intelligence. In fact, Pat Mattingly, principal of The Lamplighter School in Dallas, says education begins as soon as your baby comes home from the hospital. She says infant stimulation has shown higher results in IQ tests. By infant stimulation educators mean surrounding your baby with various attention-getters: bright colors and objects; pleasant, soothing sounds. Play games with your baby – talking to the child in adult language, not baby talk. Children learn by exploration and by experience; the infant who sits in a playpen all day long will not make as many discoveries as the child who’s free to romp around a house and feel the texture of carpeting, magazines, and the family cat’s tail.

It’s not a bad idea to have stereo music piped into your infant’s nursery. Not only will your baby get a head start on music appreciation, but the soothing sounds may define his moods and charge his energies.

Just as sound is important to your baby’s development, so are the colors and sights that surround him. For this reason, you should consult an educator when you design the nursery. The current trend is to do the nursery in a bright array of primary colors. (Infants may not be able to distinguish the subtle colors of pastel blues and pinks during the first weeks of life.) Plants are important, too, not only because photosynthesis circulates oxygen throughout the room, but also because they create a natural surrounding for your infant. Just be sure that the plants aren’t poisonous.

If you’d like a custom-designed mural for your child’s room, Dallas painter Judith Williams will do it for anywhere from $500 to several thousand dollars.

Psychiatrists say there is no concrete proof that a vibrantly decorated nursery with hanging plants and mobiles will guarantee a higher IQ level for your child. (Any impact would be mild.) But, they add, it won’t hurt to try.

“You’ve got to consider that an awful lot is beyond our control,” points out child psychiatrist Kenneth Wiggins. Wiggins says that all kids develop-learn to walk, talk, and read-no matter what, unless they are seriously deprived. Psychiatrists hold that within what they call the “average expected environment,” all children will develop and grow. Wiggins advises parents to try to be aware of and attentive to each child as an individual. Recognize which child is active and which is passive. Then work through each child’s own personality and be aware of the limitations, abilities, and temperament of the child. Parents who expect a passive, quiet child will only frustrate themselves (and the child) if Junior has a go-getter personality and they constantly try to force him to become passive.

You should begin to see some results at about nine months of age; that’s when children generally begin to utter their first words, like “Mommy” or “Daddy.” And the first sign that your child may be exceptionally bright is the age at which he starts talking. But Wiggins warns that this is very general:

“Yes, most ultra-intelligent children do start using language earlier than what’s considered normal. But again, there are many cases of very bright children who didn’t start talking until much later. And this is also measuring language skills and verbal abilities. There are other areas in which children may excel.”

It isn’t until the age of one or two that children start to understand what they’re saying. Thus, another general glimpse of exceptional intelligence is the two-year-old who understands more than concrete words-who grasps conceptual words like “before,” “peaceful,” and “love.”

There are more “extras” you can lavish upon your infant. Many Dallas mothers recommend having a nurse waiting for mother and child when they come home from the hospital. But if you’d rather spend the time with your baby, some mothers suggest hiring a housekeeper to run the house so you can concentrate on feeding and bonding.

The best clothes are to be found at The Lylian Shop in New Orleans. The dresses and infant suits are all handmade of imported lace. Some are even imported from France and Belgium. The dresses start at about $250. Unfortunately, you can’t have anything from The Lylian Shop shipped to Dallas, so you’ll have to get a babysitter and fly to New Orleans to shop. Well-dressed babies also wear clothes by Florence Eiseman. You can find them at Neiman-Marcus. A shop called Carolyn Larry in Memphis carries genuine Mary Jane shoes. Closer to home there’s The Rocking Horse in Fort Worth, which carries pigskin shoes for children in a vast array of colors.

Toddling Tutors

YOU’RE PANICKING. You and your spouse already have a child, age three. You haven’t done any of the above. You’re dreadfully afraid it’s too late. Shall you start over again? What are you going to do with the child? The two of you are nibbling each other’s fingernails.

Relax. The next message of encouragement comes from Dr. Wiggins, who admits that even he-a professor of psychiatry at Southwestern Medical School-has lost his temper with his children. And what’s more, experts say, since no parent can be perfect, all a child really needs is a parent who’s good enough. In fact, making mistakes is actually beneficial because you and your children can work them out together. Wiggins says he hopes his children can acknowledge why he’s lost his temper with them. There’s no need to apologize, but make sure they understand what they did to trigger the behavior.

The plain truth is that by the time you’ve lived through the “terrible twos” with your little one, he or she has probably been exposed to some choice profanity uttered as the child treated your favorite Waterford candy dish as if it were a flying saucer.

This is not going to ruin your child. Wiggins says discipline is an important part of education. It’s much more than punishment. It helps the child deal with feelings and teaches him skills to help control impulses and get along with others. Discipline helps the child in school. As a general guide to administering discipline, Wiggins recommends four things:

-Try to dictate the punishment as soon as possible after the undesirable behavior occurs and relate the two circumstances as closely as possible; don’t wait until “Daddy comes home.” For example, if the behavior involves a bicycle, restrict the child from using the bike for a certain period of time.

The degree of “suffering” should be commensurate to the act.

Try to negotiate the consequences. Teach the child that thispunishment is the price he will pay for bad behavior, and thatavoiding it will lead to good, positive behavior.

-Try to have some degree of restitution involved so the child does not feel hopeless about what has happened. A good example of this would be using piggy-bank money to pay for a broken window; the problem will be taken care of, but not without the parting of a good deal of savings.

Infancy is the time to correct behavioral problems with your child. Wiggins says the earlier you deal with discipline problems, the better. But the earlier the child has behavior problems, the more bleak his future appears, just as the infant with heart disease has a smaller survival rate than the toddler.

Another prominent Dallas psychiatrist, Dr. Jerry Lewis, has written a book about family relations and their impact on the development of the child. (Most of his research at the Timber-lawn Foundation was devoted to affluent families.) He traces a happy, productive child to the parents and their initial relationship: How happy these two people are with each other and themselves will greatly influence the child’s attitude. Parents serve as chief role models for their children. Among the many observations he makes in his book, this stands out: You can observe how well a family communicates by sitting down with them for dinner; if there’s a high degree of spontaneity in the family conversation, with gentle urging and guiding by both parents and participation by all the children, chances are the family communicates well with all members.

Psychiatrists say a child needs to feel safe, secure, and loved in order to work well. He must believe in his own skills and competency. Children between the ages of three and four are also motivated by positive responses from their parents.

This will change during adolescence. Mom and Dad will not be as important as the child’s peer group. But the experts tell us that a child needs the strong family structure behind him if he is to succeed in school.

Most Dallas preschools have classes starting at age three. Lamplighter starts children at age three for two mornings a week. Tuition is $1000 a year. Greenhill School starts children at three and a half years for a half-day five mornings a week. Tuition is $1480. Both schools interview and test children the year before they’re ready to enter. Principals at each school emphasize that while they have long waiting lists, they do not accept only geniuses. But they do urge parents to register children soon after birth. Dallas parents seem to believe that Meadowbrook is the most academically-oriented preschool of all.

Besides sending your child to a preschool with an excellent reputation, there are many other lessons you can begin at once to give your three-year-old a head start on brilliance.

The Suzuki Music Institute of Dallas offers violin, cello, and piano lessons to three-, four-, and five-year-olds. (You may have heard of Suzuki when Rosalynn Carter played violin with Amy in the White House.) The child practices lessons at home with the mother. Depending on the child’s attention span, they practice anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours a day. Suzuki teachers say that a two-year-old can start if he has an older sibling already playing. The program works on the premise that young children learn skills faster because they haven’t been exposed to as much. Investments include an instrument (a tiny, 16th-sized violin can start at $200) and two private lessons a week that will cost $50 a month.

Swimming coaches at SMU claim a child is not ready for swimming lessons until the age of five or six. But many parents like to start sooner, and they engage a qualified instructor to come to the house for private lessons for about $15 to $30 an hour. Many Dallas children learned to swim at the hands of Pop Kitchen, regarded as the king of Dallas swimming lessons. Old Pop is gone now, but for $100 he guaranteed that your youngster would swim, no matter how many lessons it took. Some say his methods were a little tough; the child was tossed in the water and really had no choice in the matter.

Super Schools

MANY PARENTS who expect greatness from their children will either move to the Park Cities to get them into the highly rated Highland Park school system or send them to private schools. The private schools are college preparatory from the first grade on. They offer smaller classes and fewer disruptions than public schools.

The Dallas Independent School District has been making efforts to improve, with its Arts Magnet High School and special classes for quick learners (the locally financed Vanguard Program). Private school students say anyone with brains and initiative can learn just as much in public schools. But if your child doesn’t have all the brains and initiative of a super kid, think carefully. The odds are much greater of a child going to college if he has attended one of the area’s high-powered preparatory schools. (Only six of the 380 boys who graduated from St. Mark’s School of Texas during the last four years are not attending college.)

Many students from St. Mark’s and The Hockaday School for girls say being in a private school forced them into having more initiative. A Hockaday student who also attended public schools in another state said the smaller private school made her take up more organized activities. Others said the intimacy of the small school creates a pressure to succeed academically; it’s hard to get lost in the crowd.

Perhaps the most important benefit of the small private school is the other students. Highly rated schools attract the kind of students you want your super kid-in-training to know, for much of his learning will come not from teachers, but from other children.

Three of the most well-recognized schools in the Dallas area are The Hockaday School, St. Mark’s, and Greenhill School (coeducational). All three are highly selective and require intelligence testing as part of the admission requirements. Although the St. Mark’s administration denies it, it is rumored that a boy must have an IQ of 120 to be admitted.

Two of the best private schools in Dallas are Catholic: Ur-suline Academy for girls and Cistercian Preparatory School for boys. Non-Catholics are accepted, but are required to take religion courses. Cistercian students boast the highest combined Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores in town, averaging 1238 compared to 1184 at St. Mark’s.

Other well-respected schools include St. Michael (age three through sixth grade), the Episcopal School of Dallas, The Willows School, and the Walden Preparatory School. The Episcopal School is a new private school offering grades five through 12. Boys must wear navy blazers and gray trousers; girls wear uniforms.

Tuitions vary from school to school, but generally preschool tuition is about $1000 a year. The upper grades and high school range up to $3000 a year.

One of the most innovative computer learning programs in the nation is offered by The Lamplighter School, which offers classes from nursery school though the fourth grade. Many schools offer computer instruction, but Lamplighter offers instruction in a new computer language, LOGO, developed by a professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in consultation with Texas Instruments.

Professor Seymour Papert of MIT spent 12 years developing LOGO in close consultation with the late child psychologist Jean Piaget. LOGO initiates children into mathematics by teaching them how to make geometrical shapes by entering the proper commands. Texas Instruments representative Sid Nolte said he initially thought the program would work best with first- and second-graders, but soon older kids were teaching younger kids, and three- and four-year-olds were learning how to use LOGO.

Some students who do poorly in basic skills take to the computer immediately and create elaborate programs of their own, teachers say. A second-grader created a Star Wars program of his own. Texas Instruments says Lamplighter students are testing two years ahead of other students in their math skills. School administrators say it’s too early to predict the long-term results of the program, which has attracted the attention of the national news media.

The important lesson to learn from private schools is that learning is a question of environment. Kids teach other kids. When school closes for the summer, they can’t be allowed to roam the neighborhood on bicycles, getting dirty, playing video games at the 7-Eleven, and drinking Slurpees.

College Prep

ONCE YOUR SUPER KID is in high school, the pressure is on to get into college. With studying, dates, sports, and school activities, your super kid may average as much sleep as a workaholic executive. Kids will gulp meals if they even make them, and rush for the door. If they play sports, and you want them to, expect to see them even less. The goal is to get a well-rounded kid acceptable to an Ivy League school.

Ivy League schools and other small, selective liberal arts colleges like Amherst, Connecticut Wesleyan, and Swarthmore want good students who excel in nonaca-demic areas such as theater, music, sports, and art. They try to round out their freshman classes with students from different parts of the country with various interests to create a mix that is a good learning environment.

Your child doesn’t have to make all As and have an IQ of 150. It helps to be good in one thing, like journalism, computers, soccer, or poetry. Universities like to be able to sell their schools on the appeal of the special talents of their student bodies. Being a virtuoso helps. Even being from Texas can help, because of the predominance of East Coast applications to Ivy League schools.

Super Kid Profiles

GET FIVE SUPER KIDS together and they talk about the things they have in common:

“Yeah, I got a letter from them, too, saying they’d accepted me with a full scholarship. You, too? Yeah, I never applied either.”

“All the junk you get in the mail. The free socks and stuff, the schools, the contests. How about the picture frame for all those awards? Laminate your National Merit Certificate in genuine plastic Saran Wrap. Only $59.95! They must have us on the same list.”

It’s a good list to be on. With the increasing competition among colleges for top students, super kids can pick from the best colleges because they have been preparing all their lives.

In fact, they seem to have better sense than most adults. They don’t smoke tobacco. A few of them have tried marijuana, but didn’t get interested in it. None of them experiments with other drugs.

These are the children who’ve turned out the very way every parent secretly hopes his child will turn out when he gazes at the infant in the nursery. These kids have a real stab at power because of brains, hard work, and good breeding. They are super kids, and if they were the norm for their age group we could all retire in four years and just let them take over.

But these students are a mere fraction of the rest, the C-students, the dropouts. What is it then, that makes the difference? Not all of them are members of MENSA (a national society for people in the genius IQ range), not all have achieved straight As. Not all come from perfectly nurtured families. Many of their mothers worked instead of “devoting themselves to the children” at home. Super kids defy the odds. Somehow, no matter what happens to them, they turn out brilliantly.

YVETTE TEOFAN, who enters Stanford this fall, says it can begin as early as the first grade. Her teacher made learning fun and she’s loved to study ever since. When she came home from school she immediately started on her homework without threats or prodding from her parents. They never had to limit her television watching. She preferred reading, and in high school would stay home for the weekend to write an enjoyable term paper.

“I feel guilty when I’m sitting around doing nothing,” she says. This summer, besides working downtown for an attorney, she is perfecting her French by listening to conversational tapes and reading popular novels in French.

Yvette’s success is sometimes difficult for her friends to accept, she says. A classmate she thought was a close friend at Ursuline Academy finally told her their friendship had become only a lesson in failure. The other girl was a hard worker, Yvette says, but she could never make grades as good as those of Yvette, who was valedictorian of her class.

“It was easier for me, I guess, because I’m smarter,” she says. “I learn more quickly; I have an almost photographic memory. Some people have bad memories, and that’s hard when you study. But that really did surprise me. I thought we were friends not because of grades, but because of us.” Yvette was lucky enough to also grow up pretty. She’s a part-time model with the Sara Norton Agency.

Yvette’s parents have encouraged, but not pushed, her. Her father, a successful Dallas attorney, failed courses in college.

Has Yvette ever failed anything?

She has to think a moment.

“No,” she says, “never. But I know I will someday and that scares me.”

DERRICK THOMPSON doesn’t talk much when he first meets someone, but on stage the extrovert in Derrick takes over. He will enter Columbia University this fall on a full scholarship; he’s one of 30 high school seniors in America to receive the International Thespian Society scholarship. Derrick is not one of the stereotypical silver spoon-mouthed kids who grew up with all the breaks. He is the child of a one-parent home; his mother is a medical technician. But Derrick has plunged himself into his school life, making the honor roll at Bishop Lynch High School, as well as the National Honor Society, the student council, and the Future Business Leaders of America. He is also a finalist in the Dallas TACT competition.

Derrick loves singing and dancing for an audience, but he hasn’t been totally seduced by the glimmer of the limelight. His career goal: “To go into something where I can make a good solid income, like banking or business.”

GREG HASCHKE doesn’t know what it’s like to fail a course, or even receive a B. In four years at Bryan Adams High School, he never received anything lower than an A. He’s a member of the National Honor Society, a National Merit Scholar, and a TACT finalist. He thinks a youngster can still get a good education at a Dallas public school if he really wants to. After all, the competition was tough for Greg, who wanted to become the 1981 valedictorian at Bryan Adams High School. He was almost beaten out by a Vietnamese lad who was nothing short of brilliant in calculus. Greg had one advantage over his closest rival-his native tongue. “English,” says Greg, “finally did the kid in.”

This fall Greg starts Texas A&M on a scholarship he decided to accept on the grounds that he thinks A&M is academically the best school in Texas. Greg’s career plans are obviously influenced by his father, an electrical engineer for Dallas Power & Light Co. Greg wants to go into electronics when he leaves academia.

KENNETH HERSH could have become a troubled child after his parents went through a bitter divorce when he was 11. Instead of withdrawing, Kenny plunged into his 6th grade school work and has been absorbed in school ever since.

He graduated in June from St. Mark’s School of Texas, seventh in a class of 74. He is a TACT finalist. A list of his activities and awards is too long to print, but it includes being editor-in-chief of his school newspaper and a second place finalist in the Times Herald Journalism Day contest. After graduating from Princeton, he plans to study law.

His mother, the first woman to earn a PhD at Southern Methodist University, seems to have passed on some of her energy to her son. He averages 20 hours of sleep a week, giving him time for all his activities, which include debate, the school soccer team, and varsity golf.

STEPHANIE SIMPSON was in Washington, D.C. being honored as one of two President’s Scholars in the arts from Texas when a Hollywood producer expressed an interest in producing her play in the form of a movie. She flew to California to negotiate the deal, fearful that Hollywood might commercialize her work.

Why the Crickets Hide? still has not been sold to a movie producer, but it was a major spring production at Hockaday. Stephanie is on her way to Yale this fall. And with the track record she’s compiled already, it seems realistic for her to expect a successful career in screenwriting and acting after she graduates. Neither of Stephanie’s parents has been involved with the stage or screen-her father is an insurance agent; her mother, a teacher.

NAM HOANG DANG is living proof that not all the Highland Park stereotypes are true. He wasn’t raised within walking distance of the Dallas Country Club, but instead in South Vietnam. He is not the richest kid in the Park Cities, but he could be the smartest. He is the 1981 valedictorian of Highland Park High School. He is a member of MENSA, the National Honor Society, and the Piano Ensemble Team of Dallas. He plays intramural basketball, tennis, and volleyball, and he is a volunteer in the Resettlement Program for Indo-Chinese Refugees. Somehow he worked in enough study time from his activities to rank second in the National French Exam competition. This fall he starts Harvard (on scholarship, of course). He chose Harvard for its medical school. He will doubtless be one of its better students.

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