Do you talk a lot to your young child? You probably do, but some recent research from psychologists at Stanford University found that talking is very important for helping to jump-start a little one’s brain. We know that those early years are critical for a child’s language development.
The researchers used video to see how long it took toddlers to identify simple, everyday things. What they found seemed to be influenced quite a bit by socioeconomic status. Children from well-to-do households were about 20 percent faster at identifying most images. And those children also learned 30 percent more words between 18 and 24 months of age.
One key was simply how many words the children have heard during their first few years. It’s been found that children of wealthier and more educated parents hear about two thousand words per day, compared to about 600 words for kids in poor families. By age four, that amounts to a gap of about 30 million words! And the kids who started out ahead, stayed ahead into their school years.
Every family situation is different. But it’s widely believed that more talking at home can make up a lot of that gap resulting from even difficult home environments. (And just in case you’re wondering, hearing words on TV isn’t the same for a child.)
Now, it’s appropriate to look at these results and consider the cultural factors that come into play. What is it about wealthier families—or about poorer households—that makes this happen? What can we do so that parents in all situations will give more attention to their children’s education—especially at a young age?
Those are important discussions, but the purpose today is to encourage you to be the father your children need.
So, if you have an infant or toddler, your action point for the week is simple, though not always easy. And this will benefit your older kids as well: make talking a big priority at home.
Starting when your kids are very young, let them hear lots of words so they can start figuring out meanings and how language works. Even though she doesn’t understand, give your infant a running commentary of what you’re doing together, using gentle, encouraging tones. Describe what you’re doing as you change her diaper, make her breakfast, roll her a ball, and get her fastened into her car seat.
Some other great tips from our team:
- Listen to what your toddler does say and add to it. For example: “Ball” “Yes, this is a big red ball!”
- Resist the baby talk. It might seem fun or cute, but if the goal is to expose your toddler to language like you want him to use, then speak it normally, without adding ‘y’ at the end of every word, using an abnormally high-pitched voice, etc.
- Be animated. Use your hands and a lot of facial expressions.
- Limit screen time. Since learning language is interactive, talking with your child is more valuable than having her play with mobile apps or computer games or watch TV—even if it’s Sesame Street or Baby Einstein.
- Nursery rhymes can be great for teaching language. Here are 10 recommended classics.
- Read books with your child and go slowly; pause to point at shapes, colors, animals and objects as you repeat the words.
Of course, you can build on the good habits as your kids grow. As they learn to read, you can stay involved, be patient and encouraging, and give lots of praise for signs of progress. If you can instill a love for reading, you will have given your child a great gift. There are numerous examples of people who were raised in tough circumstances, but they went on to achieve great things largely because their parents fostered in them a love for books.
And when your three- or four-year-old—or your ten-year-old or teenager—asks a question, don’t just answer it with a short sentence; engage them in conversation. When a problem comes up, talk it out. Pause the TV or hit the mute and talk about that news event or that decision by a fictional character. Better yet, turn it off and chat about your day.
Dad, if you want your child to flourish, take advantage of this new insight. Get in the habit of talking to your kids … a lot! Even when your brain is tired, and even if you’ve talked plenty at work, engage them and help their minds grow.
What is—or what was—your favorite word game or activity with your toddler? Please share either below or at our Facebook page.
- Give your toddler a photo book with pictures of all their family and extended family members, and with each person’s name clearly labeled.
- Gather 10-15 everyday items in a bin or basket and let your child take one at a time as you (and he) say what it is.
- Help your older children find interesting books to read over the summer, and reward them in some way for progressing through them.
NCF is a nonprofit organization seeking to improve the lives of children and establish a positive fathering and family legacy that will impact future generations by inspiring and equipping fathers and father figures to be actively engaged in the life of every child. You can also sign up for NCF’s Today’s Father Weekly email here.