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?