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