Talking to small children

I am back from a long vacation, the first part of which was spent at the beach with my husband’s family, and the second part of which was in a big city with my sister and her family. 

I had the opportunity first to observe my sister-in-law talking with my one-year-old niece, and then later my sister talking with my one-year-old nephew, and it occurred to me again how lucky most middle- and upper-middle class children are, to be born into families where their parents just naturally talk to them. 

My niece doesn’t have a lot of words yet, but she is very expressive, and can usually make known her wishes and dislikes and feelings.  Her parents talk to her all day long, and they listen to her, too.  She hears a ton of vocabulary, and because she is treated as a person who can understand, eventually, she does understand.  Her older sister was counting to twenty accurately in both English and Spanish before she turned three, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the little one turns out to be just as smart.

My nephew is a few months older, and has more words, although this past weekend I had a conversation with him that mostly consisted of him pointing at various things and saying “eee, eee, eee” in many different intonations.  He clearly knew what he was talking about, even if I didn’t, and I enjoyed his confidence in communication.  One night at dinner he didn’t want to eat, so my sister and brother-in-law told him, “no dinner, no dessert.”  They had a little parental discussion about whether or not he understood this concept, and decided that while he understood many other “if, then” scenarios, he hadn’t figured out this one.  But they decided to stick to it anyway, since he will eventually understand this rule through experience. 

My younger son took it on himself to teach his little cousin new words, and succeeded.  He taught him silly words (“boopdee”) and useful words (“cookie”), and my nephew probably ended up adding 6 words to his vocabulary over the weekend.  He even said “airplane” for the first time (“eee-peen!”).

I kept thinking about my darling O., from this past year’s class, who arrived in November at the age of four with an almost shocking delay in his speaking ability.  He’s got a mother who loves him very much, and who is very attentive, positive, and caring in her interactions with him.  However, she is living in poverty (when he started in my class, he was being bused from the homeless shelter), she has two other little ones at home, and she has a whole family of older children who live in Chicago.  I would wager a guess that she did not grow up with college-educated parents, and that no one talked to her a whole lot when she was little, so she doesn’t talk a whole lot with O. and his siblings.

O. learned a lot of vocabulary and conversational skills over the year, but to me it never felt like enough.  I keep thinking about the Meaningful Differences study (which I wrote about here), and how vast the vocabulary gap is between children who grow up in poverty, and children who grow up in either working-class or professional families.

The question is, how do we get the word out to the parents in poverty, about how to talk to their children in the first five years of their lives?


6 thoughts on “Talking to small children

  1. I stumbled on to your blog and I’m glad I did. I totally agree that a child, especially from o-3 that is able to have parents that are attentive, read to them, talk to them, and ultimately engage them are far more likely to have kids with a richer vocabulary. In fact, when our boys were younger, I used to turn to the Zero to Three website. It often provided information that really helped us understand and normalize the first three years of life.

    As for your question about talking to parents in poverty, I think that is a more complex issue. Because it starts from the belief that the parents more than schools need to change. However the school system does not appear responsive to the needs of the poor.

    For starters, where are the best schools-where the property values are highest, taxes are highest and resources are plentiful. It seems to me that people living in poverty need more support and resources from the schools and the community. How else can a poor or low wage earner work long hours for poor pay, and then come home and be present as much as they need to. In fairness, there are many examples of immigrants coming from Asia for example, who work long hours but convey the expectation of greatness from their kids. The kids are walking representatives of the family, so if they do poorly, it reflects on the family. This model seems contrary to the American tradition of every man for himself .

    I can not see how most poor people are going to add reading and tuning into their kids on to the list. For people like you or me, we are privelaged to be able to spend time with our kids in that way. It is a luxury, that is not available to all.

  2. You’re right, if someone is barely hanging on, working two jobs, and has little free time, then of course things like reading to their children and talking to them and helping them learn are going to go by the wayside. In addition, those are hard things to do if you don’t know that they need to be done, because you’ve never seen other parents doing them for their children.

    And you’re right that schools have done an inadequate job meeting the needs of these children. We need to figure out what to do to help them get caught up, right from the start.

    The problem is, how do we make up for the educational losses of five whole years, if the first time we see the child is in kindergarten?

    While we are working on ways to meet children’s needs, isn’t there also a way to get the word out to their parents?

  3. It is my understanding that “Head Start” was created for this purpose. I imagine most pre-schools have spots for families that are financially strapped. And I know there are social service agencies trying to meet this need. However I suspect the options are limited.

    In terms of getting the message out, it would seem to me pediatricians, public health clinics, dental clinics, and state programs that serve the poor would be the most direct way of reaching them. Since poor people with children need to have check ups and dental care. Also I believe programs like “Kid Care” was set up to support the underserved, so they get these needed services. So I guess I would start with them.

  4. What a great post! I wish I knew the stats right off the top of my head (I’m sure my wife remembers), but the number of words middle and upper-middle class kids are exposed compared to children in lower income households is staggering.

  5. Thanks, Scott. Click on the link in my post to the Meaningful Differences study, and you’ll get the stats: “By kindergarten, a child from a welfare family could have heard 32 million words fewer than a classmate from a professional family.”

  6. Pingback: meaningful differences « Elbows, knees, dreams

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