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What's the Secret to Raising Successful Kids?

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When Roberta Golinkoff had her first child in 1978, she hadn’t yet landed on The New York Times Bestseller’s List—that would have to wait until 2016’s “Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children,” which holds a lens to how play can help foster happy, healthy, thinking, caring and social children.

Golinkoff, one of few women with a doctoral degree in child development at the time, was on her way to becoming a groundbreaking scientist of international fame and, one could argue based on the depth, breadth and target subjects of her research, the mother of all mothers.

So it was a shock to her when her plants started dying, and when she found herself in her bedclothes in the middle of the day.

“Nobody tells you that motherhood is just going to consume you,” she says. “There I am, at 1 p.m., in my nightgown. I was afraid to take a shower. All of my plants died. I couldn’t take care of a baby and a plant. Here I was, a professional woman who did what I wanted. I was writing papers at a high frequency but after Jordan was born, I wasn’t the least interested in my work. The first time you become a mother, you are just completely at a loss when it comes to what to do.”

Even for the future author of titles like “How Babies Talk,” “Einstein Never Used Flash Cards” and “A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool”?

“My first baby had prickly heat in January,” she says, laughing, her voice still seasoned with the flavor of her 1950s Brooklyn upbringing. “I was overdressing him wildly. You can get a Ph.D. in child development, but no one tells you when or when not to put a sweater on a baby.”

Golinkoff, the author of more than 150 scientific papers and 16 books, is the Unidel H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Education, Psychological and Brain Sciences, and Linguistics and Cognitive Science at the University of Delaware. She was the first woman in what was then called the Department of Educational Studies. She doubled the number of women there in 1975 when she helped bring fellow psychologist Marcia Halperin aboard.

“It was nice not being the first woman,” Halperin says, “and it was also nice having the first one be Roberta. She was really a mentor, and still is to her students. She’s remarkably generous with her time.”

Halperin, who recently retired after more than 25 years with Wilmington Friends School as a consulting psychologist, has watched Golinkoff’s career reach the stratosphere.

“Roberta is fundamentally who she’s always been,” Halperin says. “Deep down, where it counts, no matter the accolades, she’s still the same person of warmth, humor, integrity, energy, intellectual curiosity and insight.”

Robert Simons, chair of the University of Delaware’s Psychological & Brain Sciences Department, has been a colleague of Golinkoff’s for 35 years.

“Roberta is gregarious, creative, extremely positive and a big thinker,” he says. “She is committed to her research program and never takes her eye off the practical applications of her work. She does not engage in her work for what it can bring to her, but for what it can bring to parents and children regarding child development and the acquisition of language and other education-related skills.

Simons is a “big fan” of Golinkoff’s concept of playful learning, noting her big effort to spread the idea. The Ultimate Block Party in Central Park drew 50,000 attendees. “She is committed to the dissemination of her science—an issue that many scientists don’t consider, and, when they do, it is most often a problem left for someone else to solve.”

Golinkoff’s voracious hunger for solving problems helped steer her toward cognitive and away from clinical psychology.

“I had a moment when I realized I might have an impulse to shake the person,” she says of clinical work. “But I love research. I eat it for breakfast. I love thinking about how to answer thorny questions.”

One of the earliest branches of her research began in the late 1970s. “At the time, in the field of language development, nobody was talking about preverbal communication,” Golinkoff says. “But I had one of what I call the ‘clicks’ one day. The clicks would happen when I’d be observing one of my kids, and I’d be like—click—he just demonstrated object permanence: scientist mode. And then—click—back into parent mode.”

The “object permanence” click happened when her son Jordan, wearing a diaper, T-shirt and sneakers, stood pointing at the refrigerator.

“I kept taking things out until he finally indicated that, yes, that’s what he wanted. I called it preverbal negotiation of meaning,” Golinkoff says. “He knew what he wanted. He just couldn’t say it. It’s really important to honor kids’ preverbal attempts.”

The university’s Child’s Play, Learning & Development Lab is the epicenter of Golinkoff’s research. She recently ran a study that examined how a parent’s phone use can disrupt language acquisition.

UD’s Child’s Play, Learning & Development Lab is the epicenter of Golinkoff’s research.//Leslie Barbaro

The study centered on parents teaching two new words to 2½-year-olds. “We rigged it so, for some parents, we called them on a cellphone at the end of the first word before they moved on to the second word. For others, we called in the middle of teaching the first word,” she says. “When we called them in the middle of the word, the child didn’t learn that word or the next. Imagine how you look when engaging with your child—your face open, eyes wide. Then you pick up a phone. You go flat, turn off from the kid. You’re sober, you change. You broke your social contract.”

With observations like that, it’s no surprise that the 21st-century child faces unprecedented language barriers. Enter QUILS, the Quick Interactive Language Screener, which Golinkoff and her longtime collaborator, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University, developed and sold to Brookes Publishing Co. The web-based tool uses animation and video to screen for three areas of language development: vocabulary, syntax and process.

“This is really groundbreaking stuff, because prior to a screener like this, you needed a speech pathologist to administer it,” she says. “But anyone can do this—an aide, the parent. This instrument is able to ID children who have potential language lags. Just yesterday, we found a 4½-year-old kid who was so far behind. If at the end of my career this screener will have found these kids, I’ll feel like I did something.”

Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek boast the longest-running collaboration in the field of children’s developmental psychology. The duo co-authored “Becoming Brilliant,” which lobbies for playful learning as a way to raise the 21st-century kid: one who is collaborative, creative, competent and budding as a responsible citizen for tomorrow.

The book’s goal is to empower parents and policymakers to understand that a person’s metrics of brilliance aren’t measurable by merely memorizing knowledge and spitting it out on a test. Instead, Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek argue for the 6Cs—collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence.

“As a society, we are obsessed with this kind of ‘brilliance,’ and this is totally misguided,” Golinkoff says. “Every child should have a Sidwell Friends experience, the school where the Obama girls went. We know how to do it, but we find excuses not to. It’s easier to look at test scores exclusively and ask students to master content in that way.”

For the 21st-century kid, the 6Cs are crucial.

“According to an Oxford study, in the next 20 years, 47 percent of our jobs will be automated to computers and robots. What that means is we need to train our children with the 6Cs, which are not things that robots can do,” she says. “If we’ve made even one parent feel like they don’t have to use the word ‘just’ in front of play, we’ve made a dent.”

Edison Leamy, 5, of Bear, earns a special T-shirt for
participating in studies at Golinkoff’s UD lab.//Leslie 
Barbaro

A parent doesn’t need to have a doctoral degree to raise a 6C kid. “Just get on the floor and play with your child, for a start,” Golinkoff says. “Turn off the TV, put away the darn phone and let the kid run the show. He’s the chef. You’re the sous chef.”

Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff have science in common. But they’re also both moms and grandmothers.

“Roberta is really an outstanding parent. She’s even outstanding at parenting my kids and grandkids,” says Hirsh-Pasek. “For both of us, parenting is about helping every child reach his or her potential. It’s about stepping back and appreciating. It’s about helping your child become who she is, not what your image is. That means giving them the freedom to explore, to muck around in the mud, and to play. And Roberta and I spend a lot of time studying the value of play.”

You might say Golinkoff is a pro at play.

“I spent most of my childhood outside,” Golinkoff says. “The free play that you do as a kid is what gets you in trouble, but that’s not a bad thing. I remember in second grade, I was out on the roof of my six-story apartment building with girlfriends. We weren’t actually going to jump, but some old biddy from the building told my mom and I got into big trouble. But that’s the kind of thing kids need.”

Golinkoff was a rabble-rouser; she liked getting in trouble, and she loved to explore her world. She was once told she asked too many questions, and she was just fine with that.

With her curly hair and easy laugh, its not hard to believe a young Golinkoff was a mischievous chatterbox who loved pushing boundaries—and still is.

As Golinkoff flutters around her gorgeous Delaware Art Museum-area home, she stops to point out a fantastic sculpture, offers banana bread on a robin’s egg blue plate and points with pride at a framed print done by the hand of one of her grandchildren. Her eyes light up. “They are my joy,” she says.

The palette of her dining room, with robust canvas paintings and curious sculptures, is an homage to the Southwest. Color calls from everywhere. The only competition is Golinkoff herself: She is warm and richly spirited, wearing midi cowboy boots and bright orange tights. She mentions a few of her favorite things to do outside of the lab: exercise, travel, go on coffee dates with girlfriends, eat good food and ride her bike. With husband Larry Ballen, who died shortly after Thanksgiving, Golinkoff’s blended family is made up of two sons, Jordan and Jesse; three stepchildren, Sasha, Chloe and Ivin; and seven grandchildren.

“He was my prince,” Golinkoff says of Ballen. “A beautiful man.”

But Golinkoff is not one to dwell in sadness. She is the woman who cultivated a household that hummed along on love, learning and laughter.

“She is an incredibly loving and engaged mother and grandmother. She is nurturing, generous, open-minded and even-tempered,” says Golinkoff’s eldest son, Jordan. “Perhaps most notable is her ability to balance her professional and personal lives. As children, we have many wonderful memories of trips we took, games we played, and of a house filled with laughter and learning.”

“This is a new space for Roberta to navigate,” Hirsh-Pasek says. “But if I take out my crystal ball and look at her future, I see more discovery. No matter where you are, you should be discovering new things, overturning objects and seeing what’s on the bottom. That’s Roberta—constantly questioning. I think we’re on the cusp of a lot of cool discoveries.”