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Improve Your Child’s Cognitive Ability for Income Potential

This article was written by in Career and Work. 18 comments.

There’s a chance you could become a multi-millionaire after repeatedly slamming your head into other people and suffering through the resulting mini-concussions and minor brain damage, but not everyone can be a professional football player in the NFL. There’s a safer and less harmful path toward financial independence.

Cognitive ability is an important part of your human capital, and your human capital measures, among other things, how likely you’ll be able to support yourself financially, particularly through difficult economic times. Cognitive ability is important because many jobs requiring intricate skills and the best careers that offer opportunities for advancement require the ability to learn and adapt, and that’s the core of cognition.

The ability for the brain to process information changes throughout one’s lifetime, and without stimulation, cognitive ability can decline. When companies like Google or SAS ask puzzling interview questions, they’re testing, among other things, cognitive ability. To be hired as a software engineer, you would need to show that you have a strong command of whatever primary programming language is popular at the time, but in an industry that changes so quickly, strong cognitive ability will show that you can learn and adapt to the changing environment.

Rubik's CubeThe key is instilling cognitive ability in children at an early enough age. As we get older, we can continue to refine cognitive ability, but only to a small extent. These tactics may no longer work for me; the best adults can generally do to keep cognitive skills sharp is to get enough sleep and exercise, and eat nutritious food.

If you’re interested in helping your child prepare for a life full of challenges, there are some tactics you can employ.

Learning a new language

As a child, I enjoyed learning languages. I never became fluent in anything other than English, but I enjoyed the process of learning the rules. As a kid, I was fascinated by languages, and spent time learning a little bit of as many as possible. Like many kids, I learned a little Spanish from Sesame Street. I learned Hebrew and tried to teach myself Yiddish. I studied Latin in middle school, was taken out of usual classes to study Greek independently, and took five years of German. I learned programming languages like BASIC, Pascal, lisp, and C. And as a younger kid, I dabbled with creating my own languages and codes.

Music and mathematics have features in common with languages, as well. Music, particularly learning to play an instrument instead of just listening to Mozart, has been shown to improve cognitive ability.

As an adult, learning a new language or a musical instrument is a time-consuming task. There are programs that help frequent travelers learn languages quickly, but you could get a bigger cognitive benefit by learning a language through a more academic curriculum or through immersion. Rather than focusing on key phrases that help you get by in a foreign land, incorporating a new language into the way you think can help keep your brain active. On the other hand, young children, even those learning their first language or languages, can often learn multiple languages concurrently without being confused. Language skills not only improve cognitive ability, but they can make someone a more marketable employee around the world or increase the chance of international success in their own businesses.

Completing puzzles

Elementary school is a great time to focus on solving puzzles whose solutions require thinking “outside the box.” I seem to remember this being called “lateral thinking” when I was younger, but I don’t know if that term is widely used today. These are the types of puzzles that stymie job applicants at companies like Google. But puzzle solving as an adult won’t have the same impact as puzzle solving when the brain is at its most impressionable.

  • Logic puzzles are kind of like the game Clue. You often have two or more dimensions to work with, and the goal is to pair each of the dimensions together based on a limited number of clues. A grid helps eliminate incorrect pairings to discover what’s correct. The more dimensions included in the puzzle, the more brain power necessary to solve the puzzle.
  • For a child, a Rubik’s Cube can be an engaging puzzle. While the answer now comes packaged with the toy, and there are numerous Youtube videos describing how to solve the puzzle in about twenty moves, the cognitive challenge is in working to find patterns of movement that move closer to the result.
  • Text adventure games open up a child’s mind to being able to control their environment. Video games have changed since I was a kid, but I enjoyed the early text adventure computer games like Scott Adams’ Adventureland. (Classic game lovers can play Adventureland here.)

Reading and writing

Reading and writing help develop important cognitive skills focused on processing information the same way they’ll need to make sense of problems as adults. Writing, particularly creative writing, improves the command of language and can help children find clarity when expressing their ideas. Writing is a skill that will easily set someone apart from the competition, as might be necessary in tough job markets. I’ve personally seen atrocious written communication among co-workers throughout the many jobs I’ve had. I will never say I’m a great writer, but these skills are lacking in my former non-profit and corporate environments.

When I compose a well-worded communication, the supervisors shouldn’t be surprised. Every employee with a college education should be able to express himself or herself somewhat eloquently.

These cognitive skills nurtured at an early age can help prepare children for financial success in life. The best careers need smart and flexible employees to take on unforeseen challenges. People often predict what the hottest careers may be one generation from now, but the specific opportunities are irrelevant if children are prepared today to handle any problem that presents itself.

What did you do as a child to improve your cognitive ability? If you have children, how are you helping them prepare for the future?

Photo: Don Wright

Published or updated January 26, 2012.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 lynn

I guess we did these things for our children, without knowing we were preparing them for their future. Rubik cubes are back. MY GS got one for Christmas. LOL His mother’s favorite puzzle.

One day DD woke up(12 yo) and her RC was completely solved. She was in shock. When she was in college, she figured out dad spent time changing the stickers to look like he solved it. He never admitted it to her – only smiled when she figured it out – but thinking in this manner is in itself I would consider a mental ability.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

This was an awesome and thoughtful article. These intellectually engaging games are great and a much better substitute to a game boy or video games. In my house imaginations will be put to use — and Nintendos limited.

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avatar 3 Luke Landes

Video games get a bad reputation. There’s not ALL bad, and of course, anything in excess could be damaging. Those text adventure games were pretty stimulating, both from a strategy perspective and from an imagination perspective.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

As a mom of four and a former teacher, I couldn’t agree with you more. One of my kids is learning Korean and two of them are learning French. My husband is a computer programmer so he is introducing them to some of the computer languages as well. Playing musical instruments is also big in our house. Another good way to improve cognitive development in kids is to get them involved in the academic bowls or quiz bowls at their school. It broadens their knowledge base and also pushes their response time on a variety of subjects and thinking levels.

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avatar 5 Ceecee

I started writing stories at a very young age, and writing has carried me through many challenges. I wish that I had learned a second language in my formative years, I believe that it is easier then than later. Since I’m very word oriented, I try to challenge myself with the numbers of Sudoku. It truly makes my head hurt!

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avatar 6 wylerassociate

I started reading & writing when I was young and I have very good memorization skills so I tried to internalize things and use my photographic memory to my advantage. Now that i’m in my 30s, I tried to read as much as I can and like ceecee I play soduku games which are fun as well as mentally challenging. I think one of the best things that I’ve done to improve my intelligence & critical thinking skills is taking fish oil because i’ve seen a difference in my thinking the last 5-6 years.

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avatar 7 shellye

I learned to read at age 3, according to my parents. Had no idea what the words meant, but I could apparently sound them out. While I was never very good at games of logic, I loved geometry in high school and took 4 years of Spanish. Never big into the Rubik’s cube, though. Years later, I homeschooled my kids for 6 years before enrolling them in private school first, then public school. My kids loved building things with Legos more than anything. We must have had a million Lego pieces throughout the house (and I still have them, even though the kids have outgrown them). I read to them since birth, and taught them how the world operates when they would go out with me to do errands and such. Today one is an architecture major in college, one hopes to work at the CIA (?) and the other is a budding guitarist, DJ and rock star. :-)

I still love any kind of Scrabble or word games; Sudoku makes my head hurt, too! As Wyler said, fish oil is great; I’ve been taking it myself and have noticed a difference.

Great post!

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avatar 8 Anonymous

As a child, I learned how toplay the piano and practiced for hours for years. Music lessons helps cognitive ability and usually you do better in math. I played card and board games from a very age with friends and family. My own children played a lot of board games too. They were involved in other forms of extracurricular activities such as team sports and scouting. All of these activities help your cognitive abilitiy. They are successful adult now because of it.

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avatar 9 lynn

You are right! Our kids each played violin or drums. An over view of the arts is also important. Only one was in sports. I had very little choice since she did summersalts befor she walked. I couldn’t waste that skill.

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avatar 10 Anonymous

We had family game nights growing up, Scrabble to work on spelling, Monopoly to work on math/money, Risk for strategy, Set for patterns, etc.

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avatar 11 Anonymous

Luke, With only one child, we challenged our daughter across the board, from physical to mental to creative activities. She’s turning into a smart competent adult! But I can’t take the credit :)

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avatar 12 Donna Freedman

I read, read, read as a child. We couldn’t afford piano lessons or any other kind of enrichment, but books took me elsewhere. Loved to play Scrabble (never with the Scrabble dictionary, just everyday vernacular). We weren’t offered language classes until the ninth grade.
With my own daughter, I encouraged reading, puzzles, theater and wordplay. She does logic puzzles for fun now, and loves Sudoku (although she told me, “You’d be really good at it — but don’t try it. It’s a time suck.”)
If I could tell parents ONE thing, it would be this: Turn off the television and limit computer time and video games severely. Encourage reading and exploration, crafts and hobbies, and allow for just plain playing/being time. Don’t let them sit in front of the tube for hours at a stretch.
Expect them to contribute to the household, i.e., “We all do our part to keep this place running.” They ought to be helping to clean, cook and garden (if applicable) from a very young age. I see way too many entitled little princes and princesses whose parents do everything but chew their meat for them. Learning how to dust, take out the garbage, do laundry, pull weeds and peel potatoes gives them not just a sense of accomplishment but also gives them what my dad called “useful life skills.” Seriously: When I first went to college I encountered a freshman crying, actually SOBBING, in the laundry room because she didn’t know how to do her own wash and she was afraid she was going to mess it up.
Oh, and don’t be afraid to let your kids fail. Don’t smooth the way too much. They need to NOT do well at something in order to learn how to do things well.

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avatar 13 Luke Landes

I saw an article recently — actually, it was just a note posted by NPR on its Facebook wall — that claimed that more and more, bosses in the workplace get calls from their employees’ parents when those employees are Generation Y adults. They’re calling to “negotiate better benefits, protest a poor evaluation, etc.” on behalf of their children. I would be embarrassed if my parents had done that for me. Then again, when I first started working, I could have used help in negotiations… not for it do be done for me, but for someone to explain that I do need to stick up for myself.

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avatar 14 lynn

This seems to be a carry over from high school. It’s difficult to believe.

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avatar 15 lynn

All of this as well.

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avatar 16 Anonymous

Teaching your child from an early age opens their mind to being receptive to new information that will help them through their career. Exposure to foreign languages and cultures from a young age makes an individual able to socialize better when placed into unfamiliar environments with potential clients.

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avatar 17 qixx

All i saw in the article was an excuse to buy a rubik’s cube for my child. It is still a bit early for him since he can’t turn it yet (he’s only 2). But an excuse to get one none the less.

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avatar 18 Anonymous

When I was young the thing that got me started was reading baseball and basketball box scores. I learned about batting averages and on base percentages and ERAs. I played Monopoly, Risk and other board games. I ended up very strong in math and am a tax attorney. I also play guitar and study foreign languages and believe these things keep me sharp. This is a great article about the important ways to learn and develop your mind and continue to do so for as much time as you have..

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