Science of Success

How do you raise a genius? Researchers say they've found the secret to successful parenting

Why Einstein may not have created the theory of relativity if his mom hadn't made him play the violin
Why Einstein may not have created the theory of relativity if his mom hadn't made him play the violin

Albert Einstein didn't speak until he was three, but by age 12, he was already studying calculus. So it comes as no surprise that he would go on to revolutionize the world of science. Yet the question still remains: How did he become such a genius?

For years, researchers have been trying to find the answer. A 1999 study in the Lancet that analyzed 14 photographs of Einstein's brain found that one brain region was completely absent, allowing his parietal lobe (which holds several areas that are important in language processing) to take up more space. Other studies of his brain found that it was larger than most others.

But in a new book, "The Formula: Unlocking the Secrets to Raising Highly Successful Children," award-winning journalist Tatsha Robertson and Harvard economist Ronald F. Ferguson explore the how parents of successful children contributed to their achievements and the actionable insights we can glean about their child-rearing.

The 'Formula' for successful parenting

Over the course of 15 years, Robertson and Ferguson analyzed 200 high-achieving adults and their parents. They also studied the childhoods of well-known figures, from Anne, Susan and Janet Wojcicki (who have been called the "Silicon Valley sisters") to Albert Einstein.

In the research, a clear pattern emerged: "The approaches that parents of high achievers adopted, beginning in the earliest years of life, bore real and striking similarities, despite those parents' widely divergent backgrounds and life circumstances.

That pattern, which Robertson and Ferguson call the "Formula," consists of eight roles: The Early Learning Partner, the Flight Engineer, the Fixer, the Revealer, the Philosopher, the Model, the Negotiator and the GPS Navigational Voice.

Einstein's parents, Pauline and Hermann, were very supportive in all eight roles, Robertson tells CNBC Make It, but they were particularly skilled at being Negotiators and Revealers.

Thirteen things mentally strong parents don't do
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The Negotiator

Negotiators nurture and encourage their children's independence, but they also intervene when necessary.

For negotiators, quitting is never an option. "Once the choice is made, sticking with it for a while becomes a non-negotiable requirement. The child isn't allowed to go back on the agreement," writes Robertson and Ferguson. Pauline was very strict on this rule.

In 1884, a frisky young Einstein decided to throw a tantrum — and then a chair — at his violin tutor. Instead of scolding him or having him quit violin altogether, Pauline decided to hire a new tutor.

She had discovered early on that her son often struggled to concentrate, and as an accomplished pianist herself, she understood that instrumental learning was helpful in developing discipline and focus. The new tutor was effective, and Albert's concentration improved.

"He mastered the violin and it ended up being a lifelong passion for him," Ferguson tells CNBC Make It. In fact, "[Einstein] said that some of his best theoretical physics ideas came during periods when he was playing the violin. We might not have had the theory of relativity if Pauline wasn't persistent in making her son play the violin."

The Revealer

Revealers introduce new ideas and possibilities to their children — things they can learn about, places they can go and people they can be. They encourage their children to be persistent in finding solutions to problems — and, when doing so, to be "curious, disciplined and and self-reliant."

Even though Einstein hated school, his parents knew that it wasn't because he had a learning disability — it was simply because he wasn't learning much at school. Their solution was to create a stimulating learning environment at home, where they provided him with books and toys that supplemented his interests.

As Einstein grew older, his curiosity was further fueled by Thursday lunches at home, where his parents allowed him to sit at the table with family members and scientist friends. "His uncle would be at the table, throwing tricky algebra questions to Einstein," says Robertson. "Einstein would hoot every time he got a correct answer."

These lunchtime seminars allowed him to interact with worldly adults who challenged him with new ideas and concepts in math, science and technology. "One young man, in particular, ended up becoming a math tutor for Albert," says Ferguson. "And by the time [Albert] was 12 or 13, the tutor said that he was having a hard time keeping up because Albert's skills had surpassed his own."

Child-rearing is an art

It isn't easy to nurture a genius, let alone raise one. In their case studies, the authors found that every child who went on to be successful had unique stories about how their were raised, but their plots were all the same: They had parents who made very strategic parenting choices.

Einstein was raised to embrace humility and be accepting of his failures, and it motivated him to explore the things he was passionate about. "It's not that I'm so smart," he once said. "It's just that I stay with problems longer."

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Video by Andrea Kramar

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