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Not all words are equal: How to talk to your baby
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Not all words are equal: How to talk to your baby

Babies cry when they are hungry so you feed them.

Diapers get wet and then you change them.

Small children get cranky when they are tired so you put them to bed.

But how do you know what you’re supposed to say to a baby that hasn’t yet learned to say a word?

The research keeps piling up about the enormous significance of parents talking to their small children.

  • Parents who talk a lot to their babies stimulate brain development. Talking a lot to babies and very young children increases their intellectual capacity.
  • The words a baby hears, even long before he or she can talk, develop crucial language skills.
  • Children who hear lots of words in their earliest years have a larger vocabulary by age three, which is associated with better reading skills at age nine, and those children are on an accelerated trajectory to have greater school success for the rest of their lives.
  • Talking to babies and very young children creates an important sense of worth and value in the child in addition to strengthening the parent-child bond.

Talking to babies doesn’t always come naturally to new parents. Not everyone is talkative. Some families have very different cultures in how they respond to babies. And some families are under a great deal of stress, and it doesn’t always feel urgent to talk to the baby. But it is urgent, and it is simple and free. Parents just need to know that it matters a great deal that they talk to their babies, and talk a lot. And it matters how they talk, and what the parents have to say.

How much talking is enough? Ideally, a child will hear 45 million words spoken to them from family members by the age of three. However, that doesn’t mean you can say “Don’t throw Cheerios” 15 million times and expect the best. All spoken words do not create equally positive results.

Researchers Betty Hart, Ph.D. and Todd Risley, Ph.D. spent 13 years observing and analyzing children as they learned to talk, and 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. Gleaned from these books are some significant insights on how parents can have higher quality interactions with their babies and young children:

1. Talk about the unimportant, non-urgent things.

If you are a parent, words like “Are you stinky?” and “Where’s your shoes?” will leap out of your mouth without even a thought. Of course, almost all parents talk about the important things in the everyday business of life.

Ironically, it’s when parents talk about all the unimportant, non-urgent things that they do more to stimulate baby brain cells and develop language skills in their child. Talking about daily routines tends to be the same kinds of words every time. The researchers found when parents talked about the little things around them they used a richer vocabulary and more complex sentences. Hart and Risley called this “extra talk” and reported that it was one of the most significant elements of language development.

“Look at the rain outside. Did you know rain is water that comes from the clouds? I like rain. It makes puddles for the birds and it waters my flowers.”

As parents talk about the non-urgent things, they point out to their child interesting things to notice, name or remember and help both their intellectual and emotional learning. More extra talk by parents means more words learned by baby which actually increases the capacity for learning still more.

2. Play and share daily life.

Parents are more likely to share extra talk when they play with their child or share everyday experiences. Doing a puzzle together or the toddler looking for socks while the parent folds the laundry creates opportunities for talking. When parents talk to their baby or child as they go about their daily activities, they expose the child to more than 1,000 words every hour and in some families it will be 2,000 words in an hour.

Talking is also part of sociality and creating a bond that leads to even more talking. Young children can learn words from television or radio music, but it doesn’t have the same positive impact that personal interaction has.

3. Share language dancing.

Hart and Risley coined the phrase “language dancing” to describe the back and forth nature of a parent and child talking. You say a few words and the baby smiles and babbles a bit and you smile and talk some more. Listening and looking are an important part of conversations with a young child. Babies grow and their conversations should grow with them with parents listening, responding and talking as partners in a conversation.

The researchers noticed that 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.

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 stimulate more conversation and explanation and more valuable extra talk.

5. Be kind.

Observers in the homes of the children in the Hart and Risley study noticed 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 directly 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.

Children absorb the warmth, emotional tone and enthusiasm of what is being said to them as much as they hear the sounds and patterns of the words. Positive tones have a powerful effect so that the human voice becomes pleasant to remember and worth listening to.

Very young children also need lots of affirmation. In the study, the children with the largest vocabularies not only heard more words, they heard many more positive, affirming words from their parents. These children got more like encouragement that they are on the right track. “Yes, it is juice,” or “That’s right, it is hot,” and “Good job, you found your shoes.”

6. Understand the curriculum.

Researchers Hart and Risley listed the “invisible curriculum of child rearing” that children need to know, and parents with children who did well in later years taught them these things:

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

Learning the names of things gives children the opportunity to learn more about everything. Furthermore, parents lay the foundation for more complex learning when they teach about categories, concepts and relationships. For example,

“Which truck is bigger?” can teach the relationship between large and small.

“Do we have more oranges or more pears?” helps teach the concept of more or less.

“Let’s count how many toys have wheels,” creates an understanding of categories.

7. Pass on what matters.

It’s hard for a parent to talk very long without passing on social values and expectations. Talk more and your child will know more about what you think matters.

“That’s his truck. You need to give it back.”

“Don’t eat that, it’s dirty.”

“The milk spilled. It was an accident. Help me wipe it up.”

Significantly, when you talk more to your child, they understand that they matter.

Email Diane L. Mangum at mangum.diane@gmail.com.