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Talk to Your Children

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The homeschool versus public school debate revolves around the education of children typically only after the age of five. Ignoring what happens before a child is old enough to attend state schools ignores the reality that education begins at home, not at school.  A significant portion of a person’s intellectual capacity is determined in his or her first 36 months.  As such, parents cannot wait until children learn how to speak or until they are old enough to be shipped off to state schools to begin to foster their children’s intellectual development.  Fortunately for parents, developing a child’s intellectual capacity is simple; they only need to talk to their child, early and often.

In 2008, Harvard professor and innovation expert Clayton Christensen wrote Disrupting Class, focusing on how innovation can be used to transform education in America. Christensen felt so strongly about the importance of parents talking to their children that he deviated from the theme of his book and dedicated an entire chapter to this subject.

Much of the education gap between the rich and the poor upon entering school age is driven not by economic disparity, but by how much a child has been talked to by their parents.  As Christensen notes, “talkative,” college educated parents spoke 2,100 words per hour, on average, to their infants, while “welfare” parents spoke on average only 600 words per hour.  By 36 months of age the children of the talkative parents had heard their parents speak 48 million words to them, compared to the children of welfare parents who heard only 13 million words.  Christensen further explains why this difference is so remarkable. It is not that the kids of the talkative parents hear 3.7 times as many words as those of the welfare parents.  Instead, when kids are being engaged in conversation, even if they don’t understand it, they are developing the synapses between brain cells which improve children’s cognitive capacities.  Because each brain cell is connected to hundreds of other cells by as many as 10,000 synapses, the advantages of the extra 35 million words is tremendous to say the least, far more than just a 3.7 times advantage.

The difference in the number of spoken words can be attributed in part to the type of talking parents engage in with their children.  There is a difference between standard talking in which parents are giving orders such as “pick up your toys” or “wash your hands” and extra talk in which parents are engaging in face to face conversations with their children.  Such conversations are not merely baby talk, but fully adult conversations in which a child would be expected to respond to, if the child could speak. All parents talk to their children in standard ways, but it is talkative parents that engage in the more serious talk. It is those engaged interactions that stimulate the development of the synapses mentioned previously, something that cannot be replicated by sitting a child in front of the TV to watch Sesame Street.

The timing of parents talking to their kids is also important.  As Christensen states in his book, the most powerful words are spoken in the first 12 months of life, even though there is no visible evidence that children can understand what their parents are saying. Parents who delayed speaking to their children in a serious manner until the point at which their children were speaking (at about 12 months) found their children suffered from a persistent deficit in intellectual capacity relative to the children of talkative parents who were speaking to their children throughout the first year.

There is no college degree or teaching certification necessary to talk to your children early and often.  As with homeschooling from the ages of five and up, parents who take their children’s development into their own hands as opposed to waiting for professional educators will be the most successful.

 

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5 Responses to " Talk to Your Children "

  1. Tad says:

    Title of this post caught my eye. Whilst I wholeheartedly agree that communication between children & parents is a subject of paramount importance, I’d have to say the simplicity of being “IN COMMUNICATION” with your children is of a bit more significance than the raw number of words or minutes you spend talking at them.

    Kids need to feel they can say anything to their parents and tell them what’s on their mind, and vice versa. In my view, that’s what’s the most important – that there aren’t then a backlog of communications on either side that then create upsets later.

    • Antonio Buehler says:

      Yes, it’s a blog post. I encourage you to read Disrupting Class for more detail. My post focused more on cognitive development, not emotional development. That’s why the point was made to talk so much in the first year, even before the child can effectively communicate, or even comprehend what the parent is saying.

  2. Antonio, you’re dead on — and the raw number of words is not insignificant.

    http://shop.lenafoundation.org/products/90-llas.aspx describes a voice recorder, based on peer-reviewed research, that helps (at this specific link) evaluate the amount and nature of speech of/with a child as a shoehorn into early diagnosing of learning disabilities.

    Talking with kids is vastly more important than many parents know. It’s also cheap, which is why poor, uneducated mothers who talk to their kids can end up with better results than rich, grad-school educated parents who have nannies perch their kids in front of TVs.

    Keep up the good work!

    Rick

  3. Sara says:

    I think it’s also important to note all the things children learn through daily conversations. I didn’t ever sit my kids down and “teach” them their colors or the names of household objects, but they learned them through our discussions. A friend of mine teaches kindergarten in a private school, and she was sharing that many of her studets come to their first day without even knowing their primary colors. How sad is it that their parents didn’t spend enough time in normal conversation for them to pick up things as simple as the color of their favorite shirt?

    • Antonio Buehler says:

      Agreed, Sara. Sadly, too many parents think that “education” begins when they send their kids off to school. Or the extent of what they need to do is teach their kids to speak. If they, like homeschool parents, believed that life is education, and every moment of life is a learning opportunity, we’d all be much better off.

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