From birth to age 3, how much language children hear can make all the difference in their school readiness and their future. Doctors and famed literacy researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley identified a 30 million word gap among children based on socioeconomic differences. These findings also magnified the importance of vocabulary spoken in the home as well as the back-and-forth dialogue exchange known as the “conversational turn,” which helps form the critical thinking processes invaluable in later life. Deceptively simple, the Q&A is a foundational building block in processing thought and two-way communication at the epicenter of literacy/language.
Hart and Risley’s study confirmed significant lasting success and literacy gains in 9-year-old children whose earliest years were word- and conversation-rich at home.
Don’t be put off by the word “study.” As parents, we naturally engage in conversational turns with both children and adults. The key to developing this in our children is as simple as Ms. Frizzle’s sound advice: ask questions. Start them out young: “What does the dog say?” And keep asking questions as your children grow up. “How was your day?” might elicit a grunt or nod, but with just a little extra effort—“Tell me something that you’re getting better at” or “What is challenging you?”—we can usually start a real dialogue, possibly debate.
What you can do:
• Sing, especially sing-along songs, nursery rhymes, and any song you know most of the words to
• Talk! Narrate! Describe! Question!
• Read aloud
• Decorate with books!
Active parenting plays a crucial role in the development of young children and mature alike. It may be convenient to hand Junior a phone to play with, but already we are seeing the effects of this in our tech-addicted environment. According to psychologist and media theorist Sherry Turkle, author of such bestsellers as “Reclaiming Conversation” and “Alone Together,” we are facing a silence with our children in this country that is deafening, decrying our beloved devices for their ability to render us together—but incredibly alone.
Focusing on the psychology of human relationships with tech, Turkle spotlights how kids today speak in text sound bites, have little bandwidth for face-to-face and eye-to-eye conversation, and lack the basic ability to hold in-depth conversations without being distracted and physically or cognitively disrupted by an electronic device.
Parents must model by example. We must hold onto language, look up words in a dictionary (not online), use our zaniest vocabulary with our children, never dumb our words down (rather, pick them up a notch), find fun ways to incorporate a word of the day (from a printed calendar, not Alexa), have dinner discussions, and open the spaces in our brains that need music, language, art, spirituality. The humanities are what make us human, after all. We must curb our own tech habits and set similar limits for our children.
The tech rock stars with offspring seem to understand this: the Gates and Jobs families are keenly aware of the benefits of childhoods that are mostly off the grid and rich with nature, imagination, and innovation. They aren’t denying their children by limiting their tech use but helping them; reports on the detriments and distractions of gadgets on childhoods and discovery are filling up medical journals. I tell my children I’m emulating the masters of tech, because they truly know the dangers. Now that we have seat belts and car seats, we understand the risks of letting kids ride in cars unprotected. We must do the same with electronics and set cautionary limits. Case histories revealing the dangers—physical, mental, social, emotional, cognitive—emerge daily. Parents must choose not to follow the lemmings ahead and lead their children into the tech abyss.
Today, my kids and I were baking (see recipe below). Looking out the window at the trees, I asked them, “What if we never met a computer?” My question led to this conversational turn:
Laurel, 11: Yeah, that would be good.
Jack, 8: How could you get answers to questions?
Laurel: From books and people.
Me: It would be like when I was growing up.
Jack: But what about writing things down (recording information)?
Laurel: You could use paper.
Jack: It could get wet and ruined.
Laurel: You could protect the writing.
Me: We could write on our cave walls.
We all laughed. Just as in the classrooms I’ve known, we all posed questions, suggested possibilities, and found some answers, right there in the room.
How to Model Good Tech Behavior:
• Carry a book (to read or write in) and spend time with it rather than a phone/device
• Be a technophobe
• Buy a Faraday bag
• Have paper newspapers delivered (like this one!)
• Start meals with a query, prayer/gratitude, verse, current event, or topic; get them talking about anything from the Constitution to poetry to favorite books.
Contact Dr. Aronian at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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