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Zach is a little boy who is happier than any baby I have ever seen. Over the course of four hours he cried for six seconds when I put him down in his crib in the hotel room. I am essentially a stranger to him and he was in a strange place yet he was happy as could be. He laughed at everything my daughter and I did, and noticed every little sound we made. We copied him if he clapped, or when he slapped the side of the toy box, and that’s when he looked at us carefully, measuring and weighing and discerning whether we’d just copied him like he thought we had. That’s what happy kids do. They have room in their minds to learn. To see if we’d copied him. To see if he had the power to control his surroundings. And to his surprise, he did. He could inspire us to clap and slap the box and mimic his cute noises. He made that discovery.

My belief is that because his life is full of predictability and routines he can count on, including bedtime ritual and dinner and playtime rituals, his mind is free of anxiety. Even a stranger can put him to bed. He has brain space to take in other things around him, to learn. That is likely to make him a smart kid ultimately because he has already started paying close attention to his surroundings, and he can afford to do that because he isn’t spending brain space on worry or wonder or trying to communicate with people who are not engaged.

It was a delight to babysit Zachary, and an even bigger delight to find that my babysitter’s baby is growing up in a loving and learning kind of home. I knew that was how it would be, but it is a thrill to see the results of that firsthand.

Kids who do not have to figure out when dinner is, or when bedtime is, or what to expect in a typical day, because it is predictable, and because their caregivers respond to their needs clearly and correctly, can use their time to take advantage of other opportunities and can get on with the job of learning about the world. Being engaged makes kids smarter.