Monday, January 25, 2016

Not All Talk is Equal: How to talk to your baby

    There is a profound difference in how children turn out based on how much their parents talk to them, according to researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley.  Ideally, a baby will hear 30 million words from family members by the age of three.  However, that doesn’t mean you can say “Don’t throw Cheerios” ten million times and expect the best.  All spoken words do not create equally positive results.

    Betty Hart and Todd Risley spent 13 years observing and analyzing children and their families as they learned to talk.  They published their findings in two books, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Children in 1995, and The Social World of Children Learning to Talk in 1999.

    In their books, Hart and Risley have some valuable insights on how parents can have higher quality interactions with their babies and young children:

1.  Talk about the unimportant things.

    Of course parents will talk to their babies about the important things related to food, clothing, bed time, and toilet training.  But young children need more than the business talk of everyday life.  It is the extra talk about the unimportant things that will give them richer vocabulary, and more complex language skills. When parents spontaneously talk about what they are doing at the moment, their language becomes more complex and reflects the things parents think are important for the child to notice, name or remember.

    In the study, it was the amount of extra talk the child heard that was highly correlated to the child’s verbal and cognitive competence at age 3.  “When you talk with your children a lot about things that are not important, you automatically give them experiences that are important to their cognitive and emotional learning.” [Social World, preface, page 3.]

2. Play and share daily life.

    Extra talk was most abundant during shared playtime, or when the parent and child were engaged in a parallel or joint activity, like a child looking for socks while the parent folded laundry, or chatting while working on a puzzle together.  Talking is also part of sociality and creating a bond.

     Furthermore, parents who talk to their baby or child as they go about their daily activities will “expose their children to more than 1,000 words (in some families 2,000 words) every hour. [Social World p. 193]  Those words will naturally be more varied and broaden the child’s vocabulary.

3. Language dance.

    Hart and Risley coined the phrase “language dancing” to describe the give and take of positive verbal interaction between parent and child.  The two become partners in listening and speaking, following and leading. The parent needs to be engaged, aware and mindful of the child, listening and responding. [ Social World, pp.1-5]

    A great response is to repeat the child’s early words.  Imitation appears to truly be the highest compliment to a baby, and a sign that the parent is listening and that the child has said something meaningful in the adult’s language. [Meaningful Differences, p. 109]

    Children can learn words from television or radio music.  But it doesn’t have the same impact on young children that personal interaction has. Siblings and extended family members can share the dance and contribute to the baby’s development, but in their study, they observed that it didn’t happen very much.

4. Ask Questions.

     The parents who talked the most to children were the parents who asked the most questions.  When parents asked more questions, the children also asked more questions.  More questions stimulates more conversation, explanation and more valuable extra talk.

5. Be kind.

    Observers in the homes of the children being studied saw that the interactions seemed to be of a higher quality when parents tried to be nice and used kind words.

    All parents need to say “no” and prohibit some behaviors, but some parents observed were better at being both nice in their words and strict with their rules.  Most parents avoid telling their child that he or she was “bad,” but some are better at offering alternative choices, counting to three while waiting for a young child to make a better choice, or calmly enforcing consequences.  [Meaningful Differences, p. 84]

    Interestingly, parents with more children and thus more previous parenting experience, as well as parents with higher education levels seemed to have a bigger bag of tricks to draw upon when coming up with ways to distract unhappy children or modify unwanted behavior.

6. Understand the curriculum.

    Hart and Risley write about the “invisible curriculum of child rearing” that children need to know:
                  a. the names of all things
                  b. actions required to give and follow directions (“help” and “stop”)
                  c. social routines for polite giving and getting (“say please”)
                  d. school preparation such as naming colors, counting, reciting name and age

    Parents lay the foundation for more complex learning when they give the vocabulary of basic names and teach about categories, concepts, and relationships. (“How many of our toys have wheels?”   or “Do we have more oranges or more pears?” or “Which one is bigger?”) [Meaningful Differences,p.98]

7. Be aware of what you pass on.

    Casual conversations transmit social values and expectations at all levels.  “That’s his truck.  You need to give it back,” or “Don’t eat that, it’s dirty,” teach the child about the parents expectations and values.

    On another level, socio-economic status appears to create a culture and expectations from parents as well. The researchers notice that parents who were professionals seemed to be “preparing their children to participate in a culture concerned with symbols and analytic problem solving.”  By comparison, in poverty level families there were more frequent “imperatives and prohibitions suggesting a culture concerned with established customs.  .  . obedience, politeness and conformity”, perhaps as a key to the jobs which might be open to them.   Working class families showed a mixture of those two cultures. [Meaningful Differences,  p. 133-134]

    Parents who conciously think about how they want to raise their children can choose what skills, attitudes and expectations they will teach.  And that new template will be the one that may well ripple through succeeding generations after them. For good or bad, the experiences of our childhood become the auto-pilot setting for the way we parent, unless a decision to do someting differently is made and followed through on.

 by Diane Mangum © 2015

What about reading? Should I talk to my kids or read to my kids?

Reading to your children is a wonderful way to facilitate extra talking to children, especially if the words in the book become the jumping off point for more conversation.

Books open up a new window to peek out of and look at other people and places.  An author may have a new voice that can share ideas mom or dad may not have thought about, and use new vocabulary words.  Some combinations of words are just fun to say and hear.  Good illustrations or photographs can zero in on a concept  and facilitate understanding.

A good story should entertain both child and parent, and be a happy shared experience.  As a preschool teacher of many years, and grandmother to 16 children, I’ve read a lot of books to children and I have a few suggestions.

·       Start when they are very little.  Even infants enjoy looking at picture books, and it gives mom and dad fun things to point to and talk about.  Books soon become associated with warmth and a happy lap time.

·       Read a variety of books.  Your child might always love a book about trucks, or dearly want that tattered Tinkerbell story, but variety is at the heart of learning.  Don’t skip factual books with good illustrations and photos that give you more to look at and talk about.

·       Go ahead and read over and over that one special favorite book.  When the story is familiar it gives you room to pause and speculate about the characters and what they are thinking, or why the illustrations show what they show.  One year my preschool class requested over and over the book Drat That Fat Cat! and the more we read it, the more funny it became to the children.  Favorite stories can take on a life of their own.

·       Respond to what you are reading.  I like to pause sometimes and say, “Oh my goodness!  I wonder what will happen next.”  Invite the child to wonder and speculate with you, but don’t go on too long and let the story get lost.

·       Talk about what you’ve read.  In the story, Bootsie Barker Bites, a little girl has trouble with a mean friend.  It’s natural lead in for talking about friends, how we play, and if they have had experiences like that.  Talk about stories you’ve read in the past when new experiences come up. “Look, it’s a fire truck just like the one in the story! Only this one is yellow.  Why do you think it’s yellow, not red?”

·      Make the story your own.  Not every author is great, and he or she will never know if you do some free form adapting as you read.  Go ahead and ramp up the drama or the silliness or change the names to match your children.  Don’t skip over the hard words.  But go back and tell what the word means when the story is done, or say the word and then tell what it means in a couple of words as you read.  Hearing new words is how young vocabularies grow.

© Diane L. Mangum 2016

Love the One You're With

     Some people fear global warming.
     Others worry about the economy.
     Me, I worry about isolationism.

     Not the kind of isolationism that my high school history teacher talked about. I worry about people living in this ever more connected world, and yet becoming more and more distant because of gadgets that isolate them.

     My grandmother grew up with in a home where the family read books like Peck's Bad Boys in the evenings together.

     In my father’s childhood, when the family wanted music, they all played band instruments together around the piano.

     In my childhood, my family took rides to the canyon or long road trips with five kids playing games together in the back of a station wagon.  For lunch, we opened the tailgate and made sandwiches and mom plugged the baby bottle warmer into the cigarette lighter.

     There was a time when family life was a communal experience.  Everyone in the family had the same memories, could laugh about the same funny experiences, and commiserate over the same misadventures. (Like buying a block of ice in St. George, wrapping it in a towel and letting kids take turns holding the ice to keep cool as we crossed the Nevada desert to get to the beach in the days before we had a car with air conditioning.)

     Not only did we share memories, we shared each other.  Families really did know each other when they had to spend time actually talking.

     Today, I see kids with their own movie screen in the back seat, each with headphones and unaware of what is going on with their sibling in the next seat. Instead of family music, everyone has his or her own play list and personal device to keep them pacified.  Families take trips, but they have become electronic voyages with games, gadgets and gizmos to make sure no one has to talk to someone else. What shared memories will they have?  When they are 80 years old, what will they talk about with their siblings?  Aren't families supposed to be more than a way to keep children fed until kids can move out and pay their own cell phone charges?

     Social development is an important part of childhood. Learning to enjoy the company of who you are with and get along with others is a big deal.  My nephew took a girl on a prom date and later complained that she was on her cell phone through half of dinner.  I guess she had better people to talk to than him.

     I went to the movies and sat behind a row of teenagers who each spent most of the time checking text messages.  Apparently being with your friends at a movie isn't entertaining enough. 
     I watched a bride-to-be at her own wedding shower feel the need to pull out her phone several times to send text messages to people other than the group who took a Saturday afternoon to bring her gifts.

      I watched teenagers at a large party.  At any given time, twenty per cent were on the phone.  They were already around lots of friends, but it looked like the grass is always greener somewhere else, and many kids passed up the chance to talk to the people they were already with, hoping to find something more interesting somewhere else.

     It is not just teenagers who can't love the one they are with.  I see parents with small children eating out, or in the park.  Whomever dad is talking to must be important, because kids don't get a word from him.

     I worry that there will be a whole generation of clueless young people who have unknowingly cut themselves off from the things that really matter.  They will miss watching the countryside flow by their window and learning that other places are different than home.  They will miss long talks with mom.  They will miss discovering the links between generations that come only from listening. They will be oblivious to what is going on in the world around them and in their families because their eyes are always down, their thumbs are in constant motion, and their ears are constantly plugged.  I suspect that whether these electronically equipped kids were in a closet or in the Grand Canyon wouldn't make any difference as long as the tunes and texts keep coming. 

     It’s a strange world. Communication opportunities have never been greater, yet people seem less equipped than ever to know how to enjoy the company of the person sitting next to them.  When you are with your kids, make sure they know that you really do love the one your with by talking to them.  All those folks on the phone can wait.  Childhood disappears in a blink and you don’t want to miss it.

© Diane L. Mangum 2008