Marina Koestler Ruben

From the Blog

"The Power of Talking to Your Baby"

Throughout the day, my toddler and I chat about her interests (currently: carrot sticks, wearing Daddy's shoes, and the giraffe toothbrush holder on our bathroom mirror), but I've often wondered how much our talks really matter.

Quite a bit, as it turns out.  According to research done back in the early '90s by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley at the University of Kansas:

...the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school.

Motivated by this type of data, the city of Providence, RI, recently received a $5 million grant to train pregnant mothers in the art of family conversations, as reported by the New York Times on April 10th in "The Power of Talking to Your Baby."  The city aims to reduce the disparity between the language abilities of higher- and lower-income children.  How big is that difference?  The statistics are shocking.  Here's what Hart and Risley found:

By age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family.

Broken down further:

Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words.

In other words, children on welfare hear about 10 words a minute, working-class children hear about 20, and children from professional families hear about 35.

(Complicating the issue is Hart and Risley's finding that children's language abilities "level off" when children reach their parents' level of linguistic competency.  I'm still mulling over the implications of that finding.)

The Times article is worth a read, especially if you'd like more information about planned efforts in Providence.  In terms of parenting advice, here, for me, were the takeaways:

  • Keep in mind that research also shows that parents tend to talk to girls more than boys.  Make sure you're actively engaging your son(s) in conversation.

  • TV is not an adequate substitute for human interaction.  According to the Hart and Risley study, "TV talk not only didn't help, it was detrimental."

  • If you have a nanny or another caregiver for your young child, make sure he or she understands the importance of frequent language interaction.

  • Above all, talk with your children.  Sure, toys are fun, but the words you share with your children may turn out to be the greatest gifts you could give them.

If you're interested in reading more about Hart and Risley's findings, the book they co-authored is Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.

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I find it amusing that the Hart-Risley study, published in 1995, is getting so much attention now.  The founder of the Parent-Child Home Program addressed the same concerns back in 1965.  When she was asked, before she passed away several years ago, about what the new brain imaging studies of neglected children were showing, she said “I don’t need pictures.  All early childhood educators of my day knew what sort of stimulation and talk young children needed.”  There is nothing new here, except instead of grad students sitting in homes with clickers, we have a digital device that can record language in the home, and tell us more about what we already knew back in the 1960s.



Yes, I was also struck by this being old news.  Then again, I’m glad for any press, even outdated, that encourages people to talk to their children. 

When I read about the grant that Providence received, I did think of your organization, since the proposed project sounded like the type of work the Parent-Child Home Program does.  Thanks, too, for sharing the quote from the founder, who sounds Iike she had a strong intuitive sense for what was best for children.


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