This is the sequel to Measuring Life and Using More Complex Sentences. I broke this piece up into two parts for, well, the sake of digestibility I suppose. If you have not read Part 1, you should do so first. You can find it here.
I left you with these questions:
- Did you know the number of words you say to your child within the first two and a half years of life can alter his or her cognitive development trajectory for the rest of his or her life?
- And did you know that it’s not just about the amount of words you say, it’s about the complexity of the conversation as well?
- This of course gets us thinking about how we talk to all of our children, but what about our children who are starting from a cognitively disadvantaged position?
I raised these questions after reading Clayton Christensen’s book, How Will You Measure Your Life? Christensen details an interesting study by Todd Ridley and Betty Hart about the effects of how parents talk to their children during the first 30 months of life. Here’s a summarized excerpt.
The researchers concluded that on average, parents speak 1,500 words per hour to the infant children. “Talkative” parents spoke 2,100 words to their child, on average. Parents from less verbal backgrounds, however, spoke only 600 words. If you add that up over the first 30 months, the child of “talkative parents” heard an estimated 40 million words, compared to the disadvantage child, who heard only 13 million.
The researchers followed the children as they progressed in school. And guess what. There was a strong correlation between the number of words they heard in their first 30 months and their performance on vocabulary and reading comprehension tests as they got older.
And it didn’t matter that just any words were spoken. The way a parent spoke had a significant effect. The researchers observed two different types of conversations between parents and infants. One type they dubbed “business language”–such as, “Time for a nap,” or “Finish your milk.” These conversations were simple and direct, not rich and complex, and had a limited effect on cognitive development.
In contrast, when parents engaged in face-to-face conversations with the child–speaking fully adult, sophisticated language as if the child could be part of a chatty, grown-up conversation, the impact on cognitive development was enormous. These richer interactions they called “language dancing.” Language dancing is being chatty, thinking aloud, and commenting on what the child is doing and what the parent is doing or planning to do. “Do you want to wear the blue shirt or red shirt today?” “Do you think it will rain today?” “Do you remember the time I put your bottle in the oven by mistake?” and so on. Language dancing involves talking to the child about “what if” and “do you remember,” and “wouldn’t it be nice if”–questions that invite the child to think deeply about what is happening around him. And it has a profound effect long before a parent might actually expect a child to understand what is being asked.
In short, when a parent engages in extra talk, many more of the synaptic pathways in the child’s brain are exercised. Synapses are the junctions in the brain where a signal is transmitted from one nerve cell to another. In simple terms, the more pathways that are created between synapses in the brain, the more efficiently connections are formed. This makes the subsequent patterns of thought easier and faster. This matters. The effect on brain cells is exponential. Each brain cell can be connected to hundreds of other cells by as a many as 10,000 synapses. That means children who have been exposed to extra talk have an almost incalculable cognitive advantage.
What’s more, Ridley and Hart’s research suggests that “language dancing” is the key to this cognitive advantage–not income, ethnicity, or parents’ education. Some working-poor people talked a lot to their kids and their kids did really well. Some affluent businesspeople talked very little to their kids and their kids did very poorly.
The Point about Language Dancing
Christensen’s reason for highlighting this study is actually not why I found it so interesting. But I’ll share his point anyway.
A common mistake people make is thinking that investments in life can be sequenced. The logic goes something like this. “I can invest in my career during the early years when our children are small and parenting isn’t as critical. When our children are a bit older and begin to be interested in things that adults are interested in, then I can lift my foot off my career accelerator. That’s when I’ll focus on my family.” Many of us think like this, but the “talkative parents” study teaches that the investment in your family needs to have been made long before we tend to believe is necessary. And the cost of failing to realize this has life-altering impacts for your children. Bring on the smack to the face, right?
This brings me back to something I mentioned exploring at the end of Talking About an Early Exit. Can we really sequence our priorities in life? Can we back burner our loved ones until it is more convenient to tend to those relationships? To truly invest? Honestly, is something really a priority if it can be put on the back burner for a period of time?
This led me to a simple prioritization exercise that I’ll pass along. Take a sheet a paper. On the left side, list all of your priorities in order of importance. Every thing that you value in your life. That you feel is most worthy of your time. Now stop and think about how you actually allocate your time. On the right side of the page, list all the ways in which you actually spend your time from largest to smallest. We’ll call these resource allocations. Looking at your resource allocations side-by-side with your priorities, draw a line from each resource allocation to the relevant proirity? Do the actual resource allocations line up with your stated priorities or are they inverted?
If you’re list looks something like this, you’re not alone:
Embarrassing, right? I won’t belabor the point. But how do we reverse this upside down mix of what matters? Well I suppose the starting point is don’t sequence your life investments. This brings us full circle to the concepts we talked in Part 1 of Measuring Life and Using More Complex Sentences about purpose and busyness equaling laziness. Commit yourself to saying NO to the things that are inconsistent with your purpose and priorities.
What I Really Got Out of the Talkative Parents Study
At the end of Measuring Life and Using More Complex Sentences (Part 1), I made the comment: “which brings me back to Willa.” Because when I first learned about language dancing, I thought. Oh my God. Do I talk to my daughter (who is cognitively disadvantaged), differently than I do my son (who is, for all intents and purposes, brilliant–says the objective father about his son)? Are we playing down to her cognitive ability? Is it possible that we are generating a self-fulfilling prophecy around her cognitive development? Now I don’t mean to suggest that we have caused her development delays by the way we talk to her. We know that her genetic deficiency/ADSL has done that.
The burning question, however, is what happens if we change our behavior? What if we started talking to Willa more like an adult, through language dancing? How would she respond? Have I lost my mind? Wait. Yes. Yet I cannot help but think. She’s only 18 months old. There’s still 12 months left of prime talking time to alter that trajectory, right?
At this point, the doctors and the scientists in the room just sighed. Heavily. As they mumble under their breath, it’s not quite so simple, Mark. And perhaps they are right. I’ll make a half-hearted conscession on that point. And I’ll borrow from the words of our new friend, Kari Brown (who has a child with ADLS), to do it.
Adenylosussinate Lyase is an enzyme that is used somewhere in a long process to make adenosine. Adenosine is really important. It’s a nucleotide involved in replicating DNA, which is a must have. It’s also a major component of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is basically just energy at the cellular level. So we know that these things are important, but we don’t really understand the metabolic pathway all that well. We just know that ADSL patients are somehow deficient in these areas. At present, there are three theories as to what causes the prevailing life challenges in ADSL patients–psychomotor retardation and chronic seizures. Unfortunately, however, each of these theories is unsupported for different reasons. I won’t go into them here.
The most recent doctor/researcher to take interest in ADSL is located in Italy. He has concluded preliminarily that we don’t really understand the underlying mechanisms of ADSL. And so trying to develop treatments would be no better than throwing darts in the dark and hoping to hit the bullseye. So he wants to take a step back. Try to understand how it actually affects patients’ metabolism and neurobiology. Once we understand these mechanisms, it is more likely we could develop a treatment that would really help these kids.
Back to the point I’ve been leading to for the last several pages. This is just a glimpse into how little we know about ADSL at this point. There’s much work to be done. But given the metabolic nature of it, the cynics in the room are correct to believe that I’m nuts to be curious about how an ADSL child might respond to something like language dancing over time. However, those folks underestimate the power of something that I still have quite a bit of – HOPE.