Margaret Talbot (2015, Jan. 12). “The Talking Cure: The poorer parents are, the less they talk with their children.” The New Yorker.
A new anti-poverty program, created in Providence, Rhode Island, is trying to change how low-income parents talk to their children. The development of children’s brains is a subject of great interest to any parent, and recently policymakers and researchers have been looking at child development as a way of narrowing the gap between rich and poor.
The so-called “word gap” was discovered by two psychologists named Betty Hart and Todd Risley at the University of Kansas in the 1980s. Hart and Risley found that wealthier parents talk with their infant children a great deal more than poorer parents do. The two researchers visited groups of parents with young children every month for two and a half years, recording their conversations. Not only did they find that the wealthier families talk more, the wealthier families also engaged in better quality conversation: they asked more questions, listened more, were more positive, and used more complex grammar.
Hart and Risley found that rich and poor families had a great deal in common. All the families in the study were well-fed, clothed and housed. They all worked hard to discipline their children and teach them basic manners. But the researchers were struck by the difference in communication habits. Their research was motivated by a disappointment with school reform: they found that even when rich kids and poor kids got the same education, the rich kids did better. Hart and Risley theorized that the rich kids’ brains were getting more stimulation from their environment than the poor kids were. They concluded, “With few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies were growing and the higher the children’s I.Q. test scores at age 3 and later.”
Further research has added more weight to this thesis. A commonly cited figure is that the average four year old from a low-income family has heard thirty million fewer words than a wealthy four year old. As these findings have been publicized, policymakers have begun calling for publicly-funded programs to try to reduce the word gap.
One of these programs is the brainchild of Providence mayor Angel Taveras. When Taveras was a child he attended a Head Start preschool, and felt in hindsight that the public program had been a key difference-maker in his life. His new program, called Providence Talks, uses a digital listening device to measure a family’s rate of conversation. A social worker then coaches the parents on the importance of talking with their infants, and helps them find strategies for conversing more. The listening device can distinguish between a child’s voice and an adult’s. It can also distinguish a recorded voice on a television, and can measure “conversational turns” when one person responds to what someone else just said. Studies have found that a back-and-forth conversation is more effective than one-way speech and that very young children do not learn language skills from watching television.
I love it that you can do this in Spanish or any other language. I love it that you can do it even if you’re not literate. Even if you can’t read them a book. You can still talk to them about what an apple is: ‘This is a red apple, this is a green apple, this is how you cut it.’ Just talking and engaging and having a conversation.
The program’s director, Andrea Riquetti, says the high-tech listening devices were essential because they allowed the program staff to offer factual data, which could be more persuasive to parents.
The fact that we have this report, in a graph form, makes it nonjudgmental. We can say, look, here’s the data. Look how much you were talking at eleven o’clock! How can we do this for another half hour? As opposed to a home visitor telling a parent, ‘You’re not talking to your child enough.’
The program’s organizers expect that the children who were a part of the program will do better once they reach preschool. That’s the ultimate test of the program’s effectiveness, and the organizers are excited. However, other observers question whether something as simple as a word gap could be enough to determine a child’s destiny.
Programs like Providence Talks have come under a wide range of scrutiny and criticism. The most straightforward critique is that mere volume of words is too simple. Some researchers worry that the program focuses too much on overall word count, because it’s easier to measure, when it’s the depth of interaction that’s most important.
Another concern was that the recordings might constitute an invasion of privacy. The ACLU ultimately convinced Providence Talks to erase the recordings after the data had been analyzed by the software. However, this angered some researchers who had hoped to use the recordings in their work. One scholar said, “That’s a huge amount of data being thrown out! There were real concerns whether families would participate otherwise. But as a scientist it breaks my heart.”
Some critics have pointed out that the original study by Hart and Risley was not very rigorous, only involving forty-two families. More recent research has shown a more complex picture. Newer investigations have taken a closer look at the cultural differences between rich and poor families. For example, one theory is that poor families are more likely to value obedience over inquisitiveness:
When a family places a very high value on discipline and respect for parental authority, there is often disapproval of talking back, which can inhibit conversation in general. To some extent, this attitude tracks with class, perhaps because many working-class parents, consciously or not, are preparing children for jobs and lives in which they will not have a lot of power or autonomy.
Annette Lareau at the University of Pennsylvania sees a great deal of nuance in these differences.
Lareau did not see the middle-class approach as inherently superior. “The amount of talk in those households is exhausting,” she said. “It involves a lot of labor on the parents’ part, and sometimes parents are really not enjoying it. Sometimes kids use their verbal acuity to be really mean to each other.” She often found the kids in poor and working-class families to be more polite to their elders, less whiny, more competent, and more independent than their middle-class counterparts. Still, Lareau concluded, the kind of talk that prevailed in middle-class households offered better preparation for success in school and in professional careers. It taught children to debate, extemporize, and advocate for themselves, and it helped them develop the vocabulary that tends to reap academic rewards.”
Riquetti, the director of Providence Talks, emphasizes that the program is voluntary and is empowering to families, giving them the tools to succeed in the modern economy. However, she admitted that the program may clash with participants’ cultural expectations. She cites the example of her own upbringing in Quito, Ecuador. In Latino culture, she says,
the school is seen as being in charge of teaching children their letters and all that, while parents are in charge of discipline—making sure they listen and they’re good and they sit still. Parents don’t tend, overall, to give children a lot of choices and options. It’s kind of like ‘I rule the roost so that you can behave and learn at school.’
She adds, “It really is our responsibility to let families know what it takes to succeed in the culture they live in—which may not necessarily be the same as the culture they have.”
However, some critics have portrayed this approach as cultural imperialism, with one article accusing the program of having a “blame-the-victim approach to language and poverty.”
Other observers have wondered whether programs like Providence Talks, well-intentioned though they are, are simply providing the wrong resources. Richard Weissbourd at Harvard organized focus groups to talk to low-income parents about the importance of communicating with their infant children. He said the parents readily grasped the importance of communication, but they explained why it was difficult for them. “You had some people working three jobs….They’d say, ‘Look, when I get home I have to clean and cook and do the laundry.’ They’re exhausted. They’d say, ‘Sometimes we have to put our kids in front of the TV.’“
Weissbourd says convincing parents that they need to talk to their kids might not be the real challenge. Instead, maybe programs should make it easier for them to do so. “Maybe we have the model wrong. Maybe what we need to do is come in and bring dinner and help with laundry and free up a parent to engage in more play with their child.”
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What do you think of Weissbourd’s conclusion? Could you envision a program that helped working class families with their chores, giving them more free time to spend with their children? What kind of organizations do you think might support a program like that?
- Do you think that programs like Providence Talks constitute “cultural imperialism”? How would you feel if a city official came to your house to critique your parenting?
- Does the underlying concern about the “word gap” seem plausible to you? Do you think that an infant’s social environment can have a predictive influence on their brain’s development?
- Have you personally observed different families in how they talk to their young children? In your observation, does it look like conversation stimulates the infant’s brain?
- Studies have found a link between the amount parents talk to their children and the children’s cognitive development. The word gap appears to be one factor drawing some young men toward gang affiliation and violence. Anti-violence programs have been hindered by the complexity of the issue.
- Municipal governments are sponsoring programs to close the “word gap,” teaching low-income families to converse more with their infants.
- However, some observers have offered a more nuanced perspective, explaining the different cultural values between rich and poor families, and pointing out why it might be difficult for poor families to find the time and energy to talk a lot.
Peter Bass© 2019 CYS