Like New England weather, parenting trends change quickly, and drastically. I was born in the Spanking Era, which segued into the Free to Be You and Me Period, and started my own family in the Days of Wooden Toys, Slings, and Positive Reinforcement. It seemed like wherever we went, any kind of class or activity, someone was handing all the kids a Certificate of Participation, so no one was left out of the awards-getting. Praise, praise, praise. Was that the right thing to do?
An article in New York magazine, from 2007, by Po Bronson, entitled "How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise", says no. In short, the studies cited contend that telling kids they're smart meant that they didn't know how to handle failure when it came their way. Instead, the kids who'd been praised for their effort showed more persistence after they performed poorly. This makes sense--there is failure in real life. You don't get an award for showing up in real life.
You can't blame parents for wanting the best for their kids, and getting it wrong anyway. The path to Baby Einstein was paved with good intentions. I will tell you one thing to do, and I will guarantee that it will work, or at least, it will do no harm: Read. Read to your kid. Read with your kid. Give him a board book. Take him to the library and let him pick out a stack of picture books. Check out a book or magazine for yourself, and show her it's fun to read. We have books your kid can read to you, too.
Reading to your kid improves vocabulary, because they're exposed to more new words on the page than they'll hear in spoken conversation. Reading to your kid develops their listening skills. Reading to your kid should start early, as early as you can. Reading to your kid is fun, too. You can laugh together at Freddy the Pig, or Walter, The Farting Dog.
Don't be afraid of what your kid is reading. Kids like boogers, and slime. Reading Captain Underpants or a Gossip Girl novel is not an indicator that a child will fail to be a useful member of society. She's in school, learning away, maybe she needs something easier to read for relaxation. And I often hear parents in the library saying "That book again? You've already read it twice! Pick out something else". Re-reading a book is okay--maybe it's comforting and relaxing to read it again, maybe the child will pick up on something in the book that he missed the first time.