As we now know, food is not the only type of nourishment a young child needs. The undisputed truth based on research spanning several years is that words matter. A lot. Unfortunately, this principle stands at odds with the reality that there can be up to a 25,000 word count difference per day between family to family in child-directed speech.1
It is hard to believe that it has been over 20 years since Betty Hart and Todd Risley published their groundbreaking study showing that talking to your baby is the cornerstone for their overall development. Upon observing and analyzing parent-child interactions in several families, they’ve taught us that the number of words a child hears from birth to age three is largely correlated with the child’s language development and intellectual success later in life.1 In short, the 3-year window at the beginning of a child’s life essentially determines the trajectory of success for the child’s entire life. Pretty powerful stuff.
The key point of interest that gets overshadowed by this simple yet powerful idea is how much parents are actually talking to their kids. A 2008 LENA foundation study titled “The Power of Talk” has given us a window into the lives of families who participated in a 6-month study where parent-child interactions were closely tracked with recording devices and analytical software.1 The results of this study, which aimed to dig deeper into the findings of Hart and Risley, are nothing short of astounding.
For starters, it was found that there is an incredibly large range in the amount of child-directed speech from parents and caregivers. The adults who who were in the 90th percentile essentially talked twice as much to their children than those who were in the 50th percentile. Amazingly enough, the same adults in the 90th percentile talked almost 4 times more to their kids than those in the 10th percentile. What this goes to show is that parents across different families are highly variable in how much they interact with their children.
Even more surprising (and perhaps shocking) is the perception parents have of their own efforts in engaging with their children. The LENA study requested parents to rate the amount that they talked to their children on a scale of 1 to 5. A staggering 99% of parents rated themselves as at least average (3 or above) in amount of talk, and 74% rating themselves as above average (4 or 5).
The kicker? Of those parents who thought they were above average, 40% of them were actually below the aforementioned 50th percentile. In fact, a mere 20% of those who gave themselves a 5 were actually in the 80th percentile or higher.
The takeaway: it is extremely difficult to know how much is being said to our children.
So, how does this tie in to the importance of parental engagement? Well, the LENA study actually goes on to not only confirm Hart and Risley’s results, but it also paints a far more telling picture in terms of how differently children develop based on how talkative their parents are. (See figure below.)
We can clearly see that parents who were at or above the 80th percentile in child-directed speech have an undeniable impact on how much their children vocalize compared to the children of parents who were at or below the 20th percentile. With such a large gap in vocalization rate and language development, children of parents who are taciturn are clearly at a huge disadvantage from the get-go. Indeed, it is mind boggling that a one year old child with talkative parents is able to vocalize at the same rate as a three year old child with taciturn parents.
More importantly, what can we learn from all this information in the LENA study? One of the key lessons is that it is not sufficient for parents to just be aware that they need to interact and engage with their children. With such a huge range in how much parents talk to their children, coupled with their own misperception of how much they talk, telling parents to talk more on its own does not suffice.
We know that the life of a parent – especially with a newborn – is hard enough to balance as it is. We get that incorporating adequate engagement within an already busy lifestyle can be extremely challenging. That’s why our passion for making it easier for parents to engage with their little ones in a way that they know is making an actual difference in their overall development is at the core of our efforts. That’s why we created the Starling. And that’s why we’re on a mission to revolutionize early childhood development.