As I enter into this new season of parenthood, I have a mixed bag of emotions. Mostly excitement and anticipation, to be sure, but also the sobering realization that my wife and I are about to be responsible for the life of another human being. The reality of this awesome responsibility is scary for a first time parent, yet at the same time, it’s a gift and privilege that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
I’ve been reflecting some on the sort of father that I would like to be to my son: What values will I instill in him? How can I help him to discover his gifts and passions? How can I best prepare him for his future?
In the process of contemplating my parenting aspirations, I came across a very interesting study cited in the book Whatever it Takes, by Paul Tough, which simplified matters a bit for me. The study – which addresses the impact that parental interaction can have in the cognitive development of a child – was conducted in the early 1980’s by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, child psychologists from the University of Kansas. Through the course of their research, the two spent over two years visiting a sample of forty-two families in Kansas City with newborn infants of various races and economic backgrounds. During their time with the families, Hart and Risley recorded their conversations and observed interaction between parents and their children. Afterward, they transcribed the recordings and analyzed each child’s rate of language acquisition and parent’s communication style.
The results that they found from their research were staggering: By age three, the children of professional parents had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and the children of parents on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children’s IQs correlated closely to their vocabularies, as the average IQ among the professional children was 117, while the welfare children had an average IQ of 79.
What caused such a sharp disparity in the learned vocabulary of children born to professional parents as opposed to those born to parents receiving welfare? The answer turned out to be quite simple:
The more parents spoke to their child, the more the child’s vocabulary developed.
Hart and Risley concluded that strong correlations existed between the amount and kind of language that children heard in infancy and its impact upon their IQs and abilities later in childhood. This factor seemed to matter more than socioeconomic status, race, or any other variable they measured.[i]
After reading this study and thinking about its implications, I felt a little relieved. Something as simple as interacting with my child more and speaking plenty of words to him on a daily basis can have a profound impact on his vocabulary development, IQ, and abilities later in childhood. This was good news to me! Talking to my child is not a practice that seems overly complex or impossible to do. It simply requires time, effort and intentionality.
As I embark on this new journey of fatherhood and continue to contemplate how I can be a good father – besides changing diapers and wiping up spilled milk – I hope to put into practice this simple yet profound practice of speaking words to my child. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but based upon this research the words I speak to my future child could have immeasurable value.
[i] Paul Tough, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008), 41-43.
*A summary of the Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley study concerning the impact of parents’ words on children’s development can be read in Chapter 2 of Whatever It Takes titled “Unequal Childhoods.”