Mom of 18-year-old with a doctorate shares her No. 1 parenting rule: It made my daughter want ‘to learn more'

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Having an 18-year-old daughter with a doctorate is both "humbling" and "inspiring," says Jimalita Tillman.

She's the mother of Dorothy Jean Tillman II, a Chicago teen who earned a doctoral degree in integrated behavioral health from Arizona State University last year. The younger Tillman was just 17 at the time, the latest in a string of academic achievements — including a bachelor's degree at age 12 and a master's degree in environmental science by age 14, both online.

"I look to her even as inspiration for things I do in my own day to day life," Jimalita tells CNBC Make It.

Jimalita, a single parent who started home-schooling her daughter around the age of 7, did a lot to facilitate those accomplishments. She recognized early that her daughter possessed outsized curiosity and a zeal for learning that set her apart from many other children, she says.

Her best advice for other parents: Follow your child's lead when they show you what interests and excites them, and let them teach you.

"Early on, what was important was allowing her to lead and teach me things, even if I knew them already," Tillman says.

Building confidence and a thirst for learning

Kids can develop a deeper understanding of subjects, and become more personally invested, when they're given an opportunity to teach it to someone else, research shows — whether it's a parent or a peer.

For Jimalita, that meant showing a clear interest in the subjects that excited her daughter. She asked a lot of questions, and gave Dorothy Jean a forum to explain the concepts she was learning.

"Whatever [subject] she took interest in, I would take interest in that and allow her to teach me, which built up her own confidence and the things that she knew. And then [it left her] wanting to learn more," Jimalita says.

Dorothy Jean breezed through home-school courses quickly, learning high school subjects by age 8. A year later, she took college-level courses online through the College of Lake County, where she earned an associate's degree in psychology at age 10.

"Originally, she loved how the mind works and how people interact with each other," Jimalita says. "It was really her wondering why grownups do what they do." 

Encouraging her daughter's instincts

Growing up, Dorothy Jean often hung out with a group of fellow home-schooled students, and Jimalita noticed early on how much her daughter enjoyed sharing what she was learning with others.

"It wasn't just about her loving to learn, but she liked to experience and share new things with other children and other people," says Jimalita. "Half the battle of learning new things is: Can you learn it well enough to teach it?"

Another part of the battle: social skills. Dorothy Jean's advanced courses and busy schedule made her miss out on typical teen experiences like homecoming or spirit week. Jimalita tried to make up for it by regularly hosting Dorothy Jean's friends for group vacations and study sessions, especially after most schools went remote during the Covid-19 pandemic, she says.

The outgoing teen recently attended her best friend's prom, she told the New York Times last month.

Encouraging Dorothy Jean to teach her peers also helped her leadership skills flourish, Jimalita says. In 2020, Dorothy Jean launched the Dorothy Jeanius STEAM Leadership Institute, which offers educational programming in the STEM and arts subjects for Black youths in Chicago. Now that she's finished with her doctorate, she'll spend part of this summer teaching through that organization, her mom says.

"I want her to be able to work toward whatever she sees herself as a vision of peace," says Jimalita. "I want her to be able to speak, share her story and impact more people ... She really enjoys that."

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