Archive for June, 2012

It’s Simple: Talk More

In their 1995 study, Betty Hart, Ph.D., and Todd R. Risley, Ph.D. made a revelatory discovery: a child’s academic success at age 9 and 10 is directly linked the the number of words spoken to them before age 3.

Most revelatory discovery was that the “type” of language used isn’t as important as the amount.

Risley notes that both talkative and non-talkative (taciturn) parents use the same amount of “command” type talk, including directives like “No”, “Come here”, and “Stop that”. While the taciturn parents use almost entirely command talk, the extra talk from the more talkative parents is automatically more positive and complex:

“It was ‘chit-chat’ and gossip and running commentary that was automatically rich in the varied vocabulary, complex ideas, subtle guidance, and positive reinforcement that are thought to be important to intellectual development — the ‘good stuff’ of Developmental Psychology.”

The implications are that if we can simply talk more to our children, the commands will remain constant; thus, our ratio with enriched speech will improve the more we speak.

“ We don’t have to (try to) get parents to learn how to talk differently to their children. We just have to help them practice talking more.“


“Many parents are raised in a family culture of sociability. They give to their babies the benefits of the activities and conversation they share and the vocabulary growth it engenders. And, they pass on to their babies the culture of sociableness (and conversation) itself, a pattern that is repeated for generations to come. These are advantaged families and advantaged children. But in many of the family subcultures of poverty, the hours of babies’ lives are mostly empty of adult-provided structure and symbolic accompaniment and interaction is only when necessary. To change these family subcultures we must focus on teaching parents, and potential parents, how to fill up all the awake time of babies with activities and conversation so that they are accumulating as much coherent and symbolic experience and social dance practice as their advantaged American age-mates – hour after hour, day after day, month after month from the very beginning.”

How can we start to talk more?

Turn off the TV. The verdict is in: For every hour a television was turned on, babies heard 770 fewer words from an adult. 

Form new associations. For instance, while you are doing your child’s hair, recount to them the kinds of styles your mom did your hair in. Talk about animals that also have long enough hair to brush or braid.

Give a running commentary. While you are occupied with something, for instance, cooking dinner, describe your actions as though you are recording a youtube how-to video. Count the stairs as you climb. Describe your actions and outfit as you get dressed in the morning. Even if your child isn’t paying attention, they are absorbing your language and increasing their intellectual capacity.

Be mindful of technology. I’m a big offender here. I like to use the internet for communication as much as (or more than) the next person, so I try to take moments to think of ways to introduce kids to the topics I’m reading or discussing.  For instance, an article about currency inflation may bore my 4 year old, but I can use the opportunity to give her an “intro-level” discussion about what money is and why we use it. If I have to send a message I will often speak my message as I am typing.
Do you have any ideas for increasing talk-time? Share them in the comments! (Or, turn of your computer and go talk to your kids!)

Raising a Go-Getter

Raising our children to be creative go-getters can be challenging, particularly if we do not feel we always embody those traits ourselves.

Last year, Lady Gaga revealed her own brilliant thought experiment she uses to empower herself to write music:

“I wanted to thank Whitney because when I wrote ‘Born this Way,’ I imagined she was singing it — because I wasn’t secure enough in myself to imagine I was a superstar,” Gaga told the crowd at the Staples Center. “So, Whitney, I imagined you were singing ‘Born This Way’ when I wrote it.”

Narratives are powerful, and we have creative control over how we cast ourselves in our lives. If we –or our children- don’t feel bold enough to conquer new territory, that aversion alone imposes limits on our achievement. To break the cycle, try to envision the strongest, bravest, and most ambitious person you know, and imagine they fell into your shoes. What steps would they take to get back into a position of privilege?

Tips for creating empowering narratives:

    • The next time you are tempted to say “I can’t do that…” think of someone who could. How would they go about accomplishing the task? What kind of wisdom or advice might they impart? We must let our kids see us be inspired by the strengths of others, and open to channeling them.
    • Show them how. When a child is too nervous to participate in something new, but wants to, set an example by doing it yourself, with enjoyment. Having them just watch is rarely enough; we we have to also create the narrative in which they can identify and feel secure. “I’m going to go down the waterslide first.” And then, “Wow, that was fun! This time, want to do it together?” When we have a strong mentor (real or imagined) we can capitalize on their momentum and before we know it, we’re doing it ourselves.
    • Take some pressure off. If your child is getting frustrated trying to draw something, take a break to look up paintings other artists have done and take note of all the different styles in which something can be drawn. Let them know it takes many hours, days, even years of practice before we are able to achieve proficiency at a new skill, but there are endless ways of doing something well.


Making Threats

Lately, I’ve been noticing my four year old has been threatening me. Not with violence, but with arbitrary consequence. In the car today I heard, “Mom, if you don’t give me the iPad right now, I’m going to rip my dress.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself at the absurdity of tearing her dress so I would hand over the iPad. Indeed, I could see the logical gears turning in her head. She wanted to play with it, and I had refused (were my reasons for refusing justified and articulated properly, or just a knee-jerk imposition?), so she was employing a bargaining tactic she thought might motivate me to change my behaviour.

It’s not bargaining or negotiation that there is problem with; after all, it is valuable for us to learn how to productively further our cause or advocate for something. However, threatening to destroy or withhold something if someone doesn’t comply with your demand is coercive, and neither productive nor rational.

Yes, I have to take full responsibility for this behavior.

“If you don’t brush your teeth, we can’t read a bed time story.”

“If you don’t come with me right away, you will have a time-out.”

Really, it’s painful to think of myself saying these kinds of things on the regular.

Threats are fear-based, they don’t allude to (especially not to a young child), a raison d’être, nor do they teach self-motivation. Employing fear as a regulating tactic is a profound act of desperation on the part of parents whom are themselves lacking in the ability to self-regulate.

“Do you feel like that’s just the way it is? If your kids don’t do what you say and you’ve asked nicely more than once and they continue to “push your buttons” and “test your patience”, do you feel justified in your yelling? Or threatening? Your counting down? Your infliction of pain on their bodies (aka “spanking”)?  Or do you sense there’s another way? ”
-Jennifer Lehr of Good Job and Other Things You Shouldn’t Say or Do

The first step in teaching kids to be effective, rational communicators involves first allowing them the opportunity by being rational and open ourselves. My reasons for withholding the iPad in the earlier situation had something to do with my thinking that she spends a lot of time on it and should find something more creative to do. Yet, I enjoy spending time on MY devices when and how I please, and if my partner were to nonchalantly decide I couldn’t have them, and that was that, I would probably feel quite outraged. Even if he had a valid concern, would suddenly withholding them or criticizing me be positively motivating, or the best way to approach the situation? Surely, if I could not convince him to give back my phone, I might try threatening to take something of his away to see how it feels. Aha!

So really, she was employing the only effective tactic she saw available for her in order to advocate for what she wants. And, if I continued to resist her protests in the same manner, she likely would have become emotional, which could have triggered further breakdown in our communication, all over my own discomfort, lack of patience and desire to control:

“In a culture that normalizes power-over and control of others, especially children, how a child communicates and expresses herself can become a battleground… Even when we accept the need for the expression of emotions, we may want to limit its length. At some point we think the child should feel better or that the expression is no longer authentic. I have often heard adults tell a child who has cried for a period of time, “Okay, you’ve cried enough; it’s time to stop.” This is another form of trivialization. The root of trivialization is anger: we are angry that the child is burdening us with her emotional expression “for no reason at all.” Notice that all of these reactions are based on the feelings that are triggered in the adult by the child’s emotional expression. We feel sad, uncomfortable, or angry, and our response to those feelings is a desire to control the emotions of the child so that we ourselves can be more comfortable. In fact, we make the child responsible for our own emotions.”
-Teresa Brett, author of Parenting For Social Change

As parents, we are often so focused on the behavior that results from these power struggles that we neglect to first reconsider our initial request and approach. Rarely is behaviour rooted in a desire to “defy”, but rather a result of un-met needs.

Next time you are challenged, ask yourself:

  • Is my request reasonable?
  • Do I model the behavior myself?
  • Is (s)he tired? Hungry?
  • Am I pre-occupied or distracted?
  • Am I providing stimulating ways to engage in the behavior I am requesting?
  • How can I augment my approach without resorting to threats?

What are some ways you have been challenged in self-regulating for your kids?  Feel free to share your experience!