My mother-in-law is the chattiest grandma you have ever met. I’d always seen her go gaga over babies in grocery stores and restaurants (and airports and parks and street corners…) but I didn’t fully realize the extent of her baby blabbering until my first daughter was born.
She came to help and she did. She cooked and cleaned, but the real chore she cherished was diaper changing. Diaper changing! Whenever I was done nursing, she whisked my newly born daughter away in a whirlwind of words. Oh, you’re so beautiful. And so sweet! Let’s change your diaper. Let’s wipe your cute little tooshie. Let’s see if you’ve made a poopie…
And then once the diaper was off she would look in her eyes and talk about all her body parts. And here’s your belly and your little skinny legs. We have to fatten you up! You need to nurse more. You love nursing, don’t you? Yes, you do…
I was a little too overwhelmed at the time to match her talkative, bubbly energy. Plus, I’m not really a “baby person” so I don’t naturally start chatting away at them. But I watched and I noticed. And I wondered if she was on to something.
The Talking Cure
Apparently she was. In the most recent issue of the New Yorker there is an article called “The Talking Cure.” It centers on a program in Providence, RI which isn’t new but is having some success with encouraging parents to talk with their toddlers and preschoolers more. That’s it. Talk to them. Sounds simple, right?
Only it’s not. Basic research has shown that the more words a baby or toddler hears from a person talking to them in a variety of situations (not overhear from an adult conversation or Baby Einstein videos), the higher their vocabulary and the better prepared they are for success in school. And there’s different kinds of conversation–affirmative conversations, the kind that come very naturally to my mother-in-law, and prohibitive conversations, the kind that come more naturally to all of us when our toddlers start climbing on tables or playing in toilets. Within the affirmative conversations there’s “naming” conversations where you say “Let’s put on your coat. Where is your coat? There’s your coat!” versus “building” conversations where a child comes up to you and says “dino!” and you build on their idea by saying “Yes, that’s a dinosaur. Let’s find a dino friend! Where are some more dinosaurs? Should he be friends with this cow?”
It turns out that talking in an affirmative way about a variety of subjects doesn’t just make a little difference; it can make a big difference. If you were lucky enough to grow up in a home where you had a parent who narrated your day, you may have heard thirty million more words than someone who did not. Plus you got the message that what you said mattered to someone.
As with many social problems, this one disproportionately affects the poor. Although it doesn’t align cleanly on socioeconomic lines, kids who grow up in poverty are less likely to be talked to and often start school behind their peers. But Providence Talks is the latest in a growing list of social programs that is built on the premise that all parents can be an asset instead of a liability and that parenting involves lots of skills that can be taught.
Parenting Is A Skill, Not Just A Condition of Life
For me, parenting is a long list of learned skills. Blabbering at babies, for example. Although I was a little unsure about what to say to my first daughter, I quickly found the more I looked her in the eye and talked about whatever, the more she smiled and cooed and generally made my insides turn warm and buttery. So I tried to do it more. By the time my second baby came along, I changed his diaper a lot like my mother-in-law. And with my third, I’d become a full-fledged manic baby talker who doesn’t just talk to her own babies but any baby within earshot.
I like seeing this growth in myself. It reminds me to be patient and hopeful. It encourages me to remember that parenting is a skill, not a just condition of life and like any skill, with thoughtful determination, I can hone it and become better.
In fact, anyone can become a better parent. We just need to be on the lookout for exemplars, like my mother-in-law, who show us what it can look like. We need programs like Providence Talks, to remind us that the simple things we do, like talking to our children, can and will make a measurable difference in their lives. And we need the cheerleading of each other. So the next time you see a mom talking to a baby in the grocery store, give her a high five and a big hug and tell her to blabber on!
Looking for ways to talk to your baby or toddler more?
- Read to them! While you read, ask questions and make it a conversation. Check out this video.
- Try to have a “building” conversation where you take their idea and build off of it. Set a goal to do it five times a day.
- Narrate your trip to the grocery store, post office, whatever. See if you can talk to them about whatever you are doing. Ignore stares of strangers as you blabber away to a little person who can’t talk back.
- Learn some nursery rhymes, songs and word games. Library storytimes are a good place to pick those up.
- Turn off the TV (or phone or tablet). The folks at Providence Talks found that the amount someone talks to a child is drastically reduced when the TV is on.
Image courtesy phanlop88 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Wow! Thanks for this article! I have known since before having children the importance of reading and talking to them, but sometimes it is great to be re-reminded! I am going to recommit to chatting it up a little bit more with my 5 month old daughter.
Eliza Parker says
Absolutely, talking to babies is important. But we need to swing this back into balance. Babies’ brains, physical movement, sensory integration, and perception/understanding of the world develop in tandem. Young babies are still “low brain”, and it’s imperative to protect their natural inner focus and natural flow in and out–to let them lead how much they engage with the world and allow them to turn away when needed. Constant chit chat can pull babies into their “high brain,” which is not yet supported to handle analyzing so much information. Whenever I see a talkative grownup like described, I also often see the baby hooked in, much like children get zoned into the TV. The young ones, especially, don’t yet have complete control over pulling away from sensory stimulation, so they can’t always NOT turn away, so it takes them out of their own important inner focus and flow, and makes them focus on the talker. Babies have a slower pace of integration than adults. Pause and leave time for them to respond, so that it’s natural 2-way communication and the baby can choose to continue engaging or turn away–and then respect the turning away.