Talking to Kids Makes Them Smart: Smart Idea or Just Talk?

Talk may be cheap but it just got a lot richer.  Providence Talks, a program designed by the city of Providence, R.I. to teach low-income parents to talk to their kids more just won five million dollars from NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's philanthropic organization.

The idea talking to babies enriches their brain development has been brewing in child development circles for years now and hey, why not.

It seems reasonable. Not talking to kids seems unwise so the more talk, the better, right? It's also a fair explanation for the poor educational outcomes for children in educationally- and financially-disadvantaged homes. If at-risk kids don't hear as many words, their vocabularies suffer, their cognitive development, their's a slippery slope.

Oh indeed, a slippery slope from babies to school achievement.  So it's also fair to ask if the power of talk is just, well, all talk. 

Here's the skinny on parental chit chat. Not much empirical evidence out there and it's far from rigourously conducted.  It mainly comes down to 42 families.  Two researchers from Kansas recorded the families when the kids were babies:
They were looking for things like how much parents praised their children, what they talked about, whether the conversational tone was positive or negative. Then they waited till the children were 9, and examined how they were doing in school. In the meantime, they transcribed and analyzed every word on the tapes — a process that took six years. “It wasn’t until we’d collected our data that we realized that the important variable was how much talking the parents were doing,” Risley told an interviewer later. The Power of Talking to Your Baby, New York Times
In other words the more talk = smarter kids theory was a post-hoc hypothesis.  Not great.  Not the stuff of great studies here. Certainly not an A+ on scientific methodology. True, it's an exploratory study and the team did find kids in more affluent households heard a lot more words:
Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words. By age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family. And the disparity mattered: the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.
On your mark, get as many weaknesses as you can in ten seconds.

The small sample.

The correlational results.

The post-hoc hypothesis.

The time lag between infancy and age 9...

The confounding factors in the intervening years that might have produced the relationship between talk and educational achievement.

One big confounding factor that could explain the relationship between talk and achievement. Parental intelligence.  It doesn't seem smart to conclude talking to kids makes them smarter without assessing parental IQ.  Intelligence is highly heritable so it's no stretch to propose smart parents get smart kids due to genetics and not a stream of "ooh, who's a hungry boy?, who's a tired boy? who pooped their pants...good boy." Somehow I doubt this study included an assessment of parental IQ since few studies ever do. 

Hhhmmm....can you think of other reasons why kids who hear lots of talk do better in school? Parental vocabulary? Or the quality of the parent-child relationship. The types of conversation (e.g., asking kids questions, asking kids their opinions, encouraging critical thinking).  Or really any number of differences in the lives of children with parents struggling and those with comfortable home lives.   

Then there's the finding television talk didn't improve outcomes. If it's sheer amount of words that matter then it seems odd tv wouldn't be beneficial...thus throwing shade at the talk hypothesis. (Does the cell phone have a similar detrimental effect?)

Then there's the matter of quiet parents.  How to explain introvert parents who likely don't talk as much as their extroverted counterparts?  It seems ridiculous to theorize a sizable hunk of the population has been cognitively-impaired by their rather tight-lipped parents, a chunk of kids who often out-score their louder peers on giftedness.

Then there's the issue of the relative, neighbor or co-worker who never shuts up and curiously whose kid isn't the brightest bulb.

Wish I had more answers but I'm not sure what the seminal study actually tested and controlled for because the researchers didn't appear to publish results in a scholarly journal.  Instead they wrote a book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.  It was published back in 1995 so add one more issue, dusty data.

If it sounds like I'm being harsh, note that the Providence Talks program, winner of the five large ones from Mayor Bloomie is based on this research. The Providence program assumes teaching parents and caregivers to talk more will result in not only richer vocabularies but higher educational achievement.  In as few words as possible: talking to kids make them smarter.

Think about it. Does that really seem smart? Now that you think about all that is involved in creating an educational, stimulating, rich environment for a child it seems entirely too simplistic, right?

Read a chapter of the book. It's free and delivers enough drama to satisfy even the most ardent reality tv aficionados.  The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.  Or read it here.

Tell your kids about it in as many words as possible.


Awesome Mom said...

I totally had a hard time just talking to my kids as babies just for the sake of talking. I am not a chatty person. My kids have not seemed to suffer from that though because they are pretty bright and talkative themselves.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

So somehow your kids, Awesoe, managed to pump up their language skills without a constant stream of baby talk.

Awesome Mom said...

Yeah it was amazing. They somehow picked it up from not just me and my husband but from the people around them. Crazy stuff, almost like mom and dad do not have to be the only caregivers in a child's life and that they are a bit more resilient than some people think.

Barbara TherExtras said...

Personally, I'm a believer.

That said, this discussion seems to be another effort to place nurture over nature when the two are interactive.

Exceptions do not disprove the majority, I think.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey Barbara, yes the old nurture versus nature is just so...twentieth century. I hope the program helps a few kids but if it does I'm thinking it will be due to a host of factors and not just the extra words per se.

Barbara TherExtras said...

Indeed, Polly. Oh, and excellent analysis of this research, per your usual.