The most fundamental part of human life is human connection. It’s so pervasive and influential that we are truly like the fish in the sea, unaware of the water we swim in. We are completely oblivious to how much human connection defines us, partly because so much of what goes on between people is at the subconscious level, but also because of cultural gaps: the physics of people hasn’t percolated out into broad usage, and the premises of individuality still hold sway.
Also, the cognitive impacts of human interaction are small in any short period of time, and while these interactions shape our minds the change can be overlooked, or attributed to other factors.
The following story has to do with the value of talking to young children, which is massive: that exposure to language is perhaps the single largest determinant of a baby’s capacity to learn later in life. But the great majority of American parents are unaware of that, so we have a huge divergence of behaviors, so the most well-off babies will hear literally tens of millions more words than the poorest.
Tina Rosenberg, The Power Of Talking To Your Baby
The Providence Talks program will be based on research by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley at the University of Kansas, who in 1995 published a book, “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.” (see here for a summary.) Hart and Risley were studying how parents of different socioeconomic backgrounds talked to their babies. Every month, the researchers visited the 42 families in the study and recorded an hour of parent-child interaction. They were looking for things like how much parents praised their children, what they talked about, whether the conversational tone was positive or negative. Then they waited till the children were 9, and examined how they were doing in school. In the meantime, they transcribed and analyzed every word on the tapes — a process that took six years. “It wasn’t until we’d collected our data that we realized that the important variable was how much talking the parents were doing,” Risley told an interviewer later.‘By age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family. And the disparity mattered: the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.’
All parents gave their children directives like “Put away your toy!” or “Don’t eat that!” But interaction was more likely to stop there for parents on welfare, while as a family’s income and educational levels rose, those interactions were more likely to be just the beginning.
The disparity was staggering. Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words. By age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family. And the disparity mattered: the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.
Hart and Risley later wrote that children’s level of language development starts to level off when it matches that of their parents — so a language deficit is passed down through generations. They found that parents talk much more to girls than to boys (perhaps because girls are more sociable, or because it is Mom who does most of the care, and parents talk more to children of their gender). This might explain why young, poor boys have particular trouble in school. And they argued that the disparities in word usage correlated so closely with academic success that kids born to families on welfare do worse than professional-class children entirely because their parents talk to them less. In other words, if everyone talked to their young children the same amount, there would be no racial or socioeconomic gap at all. (Some other researchers say that while word count is extremely important, it can’t be the only factor.)
While we do know that richer, more educated parents talk much more to their children than poorer and less educated ones, we don’t know exactly why. A persuasive answer comes from Meredith Rowe, now an assistant professor at the University of Maryland. She found that poor women were simply unaware that it was important to talk more to their babies — no one had told them about this piece of child development research. Poorer mothers tend to depend on friends and relatives for parenting advice, who may not be up on the latest data. Middle-class mothers, on the other hand, get at least some of their parenting information from books, the Internet and pediatricians. Talking to baby has become part of middle-class culture; it seems like instinct, but it’s not.
So, the best thing we can do to raise the learning capacity of Americans is not standardized testing in schools, but convincing mothers, fathers, and other caregivers to speak more to children in their very youngest years. And turn off the TV.
I am happy that this research is being circulated in policy circles, but the immense barriers to deep cultural change makes it likely that not enough can be done to have a big impact.