Editorial: Talk to your child and good things happen

Last modified: 2/11/2015 12:02:59 AM
Today’s children are tomorrow’s future; invest in them. That statement, in one form or another, will be heard at meetings of the smallest New Hampshire school district, in the state Legislature and in Congress. But when should that investment be made? In kindergarten, after a child turns 5? During preschool? In the first weeks of life or before the child is even born? As part of maternal health and nutrition assistance, and parenting classes?

The answer is all of the above.

In a landmark 1990s study of 42 families, 13 high-income, 13 low-income, six on welfare and 10 middle-class, researchers estimated that by the time a low-income child is 3, he or she has heard 30 million fewer words than kids in upper-income households. This gap manifests itself in many ways, none of them conducive to educational success and long-term prosperity.

In a recent New Yorker article, writer Margaret Talbot described Providence Talks, a program launched by that city’s mayor, Angel Taveras, to help parents close that gap. It’s an effort that New Hampshire should emulate with a pilot program operated or overseen by the state’s Department of Education. Here’s how it works.

The initial study required researchers to record, listen to and laboriously analyze hundreds of hours of taped family interactions. Today, that can be done with software. Since merely hearing words isn’t enough – the real value comes in interactions between parent and child that involve asking and answering questions and the like – the software is programmed to note the quality of the verbal interaction, the give-and-take conversations that stimulate brain development.

In the original study, low-income children heard an average of 616 words per hour – words on TV don’t count. Working-class kids heard an average of 1,251; children in professional families 2,153. The Providence Talks team found similar discrepancies, but also some surprises. Parents in some low-income families talked to their children much more than some well-educated parents, a discovery that may reflect a difference in understanding how crucial conversation is to a child’s brain development and academic success.

The children in the mayor’s program wore a small digital recorder that could tell the difference between child and adult voices and detect “conversational turns” like asking and answering questions. To protect privacy, the recorded conversations were erased after analysis by software. Participating families were visited periodically by a Providence Talks worker who shared the results with parents, and explained the difference in types of conversations. The interactions of low-income parents, for example, tend to be more corrective (“put that down, eat your food”) and less affirming (“good job, that’s right”).

The data allowed workers to show parents how much more conversation occurred when the TV was turned off and when an adult read and discussed a book with a toddler.

Parents at every income level want to be good parents. The ones enrolled in Providence Talks ended up using the analysis of their parent-child interactions the way exercise buffs use a pedometer or a Fitbit digital exercise recorder. They competed against themselves to do better. When that happens, children win. When more and more families at all income levels understand the importance of conversing with their young children, society wins.

New Hampshire should experiment with its own version of Providence Talks and publicize the program’s results. It could prove to be a small investment with very big returns.

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