Listen to almost any conversation about the trouble with schools today, and you'll inevitably hear: "It's parents. They aren't creating the proper learning environment at home."
But what is it that parents are supposed to be doing? Flash cards and multiplication drills every night? Do you lock the 3-year-old in his room with stack cups and refuse to open the door until he's got them in order? Do you force the 5-year-old to read a certain number of books by the time she hits kindergarten?
While exposing a child to rote is important, the most direct route toward providing a learning environment is actually more fundamental and spontaneous, learning experts say.
"You're going to turn off the TV and talk to your kid," said Dorothy Rich, founder of the Washington-based Home and School Institute, a non-profit awareness group that teaches parents how to start the learning process at home.
"You're going to look around your own house and say 'What is in this house? What is in my basement? What is in my attic?' You can look at pipes and say 'This is where the water comes in. This is where the water goes out.
"You're going to look at family snapshots and talk about memories," Ms. Rich said. "You're going to go in the kitchen and cook a simple recipe, then get more complex. You're going to weigh each other, look at dress sizes.
"You're going to get excited about all the things there are to learn in this world."
In other words, you can begin teaching the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic simply by using the world around you, Ms. Rich said. And you do it spontaneously; by fostering spontaneous interest in your child's immediate world, you set the stage for a lifetime of spontaneous wonder and interest in everything else, she explained.
Besides needing to help with fundamental skills, you need to prepare your children with the confidence to think and speak for themselves, said Barbara Willer with the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children that focuses on children birth to 8. Parents foster confidence by showing interest in what their children are thinking, saying and doing.
"A good sense of self esteem is partly because of the early response of the parent," Ms. Willer said. "It's very difficult if you've been on the job all day to come home and provide the types of quality time that the experts talk about.
"And yet the child who is frequently getting the message from their parents, 'Don't bother me now, I'm tired' or 'Leave me alone, I'm fixing dinner' is getting a powerful message about the types of things they're interested in."
Tools for a good educational future include other tools for life -- persistence, self esteem, high standards and responsibility. And parents and guardians hold the key to the tool box, Ms. Willer said.
"Self esteem is not just saying 'Anything you do is great,' it's also helping a child appreciate a job well done," Ms. Willer said. "Parents who set standards and say 'I want you to try your hardest' are doing that. It's also the model that parents set for themselves. If you make a mistake, you should do it over again, rather than say 'Oh, well that'll do for now.'
"You want a child to have internal standards. You want a child to say 'I want to do the best that I can.' The ultimate nightmare for the college professor is, after he's taught something, for a student to raise his hand and say, 'Will this be on the test?' If it's not going to be on the test, it's not important. Somehow we need to get beyond that. You want knowledge for the sake of knowledge."
The Home and School Institute and the National Association for the Education of Young Children offer age-appropriate tips. Here are a few for children from birth to preschool:
Ask the child to answer his own "why" questions. When he asks "Why are you putting on those shoes?" ask back "Why do you think I'm putting on these shoes?" This gives him an opportunity to challenge himself.
Cuddle up to your child and read often, as early as 6 months, even earlier. The warmth of the experience will help your child associate positive feelings with reading. And when you're reading to him, let him lead the way. If he's ready to turn the page, and you're not, let him turn. You want to make the experience positive.
Translate your child's environment for him. When you're giving him a bath, say "Now I'm going to wash your ears," emphasizing the most important word. When you're dressing him, say "Peek-a-boo. There's your head."
Give the young child responsibilities, such as setting the table. Ask the child how many plates the table needs, how many forks for each plate. Such activities teach skills, responsibility and a sense of belonging and importance in the family.
When you go to the grocery store, give your child a coupon with a picture of an item on it and ask him to find it on the shelf and put it in the cart.
Ask your child to dictate a letter to a favorite person to begin making the distinction between the printed word and spoken language.
Watch TV with your child. (Not all TV is bad.) Talk with your child about the show during and after. Ask him if he knows what happened on the show and why it ended the way it did.
Talk about letters of the alphabet and colors. "Here's the letter 'A' on the cereal box. What color is it?"