Dear Dr. Debbie,

My goal is to be the best parent I can be to my children, ages 4 months and 2 ½ years. This is the best “job” I’ve ever had even though it will be many, many, years before it’s over. (We’re already discussing timing the next one!) I hope they go further in school than I did so they’ll be more self-assured than I am and also have better career opportunities. What can I be doing to make sure they have every advantage I can offer, even though their father and I are not rolling in money?

The Future is Now

Don’t miss last week’s column How to get siblings to stop bickering — Good Parenting

Dear TFIN,

The best advantage you can give your children is one that costs no money. Talk with them. Your interactions through language will be building strong pathways in their brains during the most critical years of brain development.

Interest in this area of research was stimulated by a report published in 1995 by Betty Hart and Todd Risley from the University of Kansas. They called the back and forth conversation between a parent and child, starting in early infancy, “Language Dancing.” When families had more of this, even with infants, there were benefits to a child’s IQ at age 3 as well as stronger performance on standardized tests, reading ability and the size of their vocabularies at age 9. It is evident from as early the first year of life, that parents are either supporting language development — which can be measured with IQ tests — or not.

The research team used tape recorders to capture each utterance for an hour’s time, once a month starting around 7 months of age. There was a definite difference between how many words had been spoken by the parents to their children who did well on these measures as compared to the number of words spoken by parents whose children who did not do as well. They found that the more chatty parents used an average of 2,150 words per hour, including a lot of unique words, and the least loquacious parents fed their children a meager 600 words per hour. Calculating the cumulative supply of words heard by age 4, the gap was found to be about 32,000,000 words.

Dr. Dana Suskind, a pediatric surgeon at the University of Chicago, developed the Thirty Million Words Initiative to help parents close this gap. Suskind had been performing cochlear implants to give young children the gift of hearing when she stumbled on the findings of Hart and Risley. This was just what she had been looking for in seeking ways to jumpstart a belated journey with language.

Suskind’s work, which she hopes inspires all parents of young children, highlights three important details from the findings of Hart and Risley:

1. Talk More

Use every opportunity to share rich vocabulary and varied sentence structure about many topics of interest to your child. The research showed that children had the best advantage when this habit was already in place by 7 months of age. Actually, this can begin even before the baby is born since the ability to learn language is at work at least three months prior to birth.

Use a conversational tone, with interesting voice effects and facial expression to hold the baby’s attention. Talk while you change the baby. Talk while you feed the baby. Talk while you walk with the baby. Talk while you shop with the baby. Talk while the baby watches you do housework and yard work. Talk while you read a magazine. As Tom Selleck’s character Peter Mitchell observed in the movie “Three Men and a Baby,” “It doesn’t matter what I read, it’s the tone you use. She doesn’t understand the words anyway, now where were we?” In other words, talk all the time.

There is a distinction made between “business talk” which is necessary communication between family members to get through the day – dressing, eating, cleaning up, going places —and the enriching conversations about past and future events, personal preferences, enjoying sights and sounds around us, etc. These comments enhance our daily experiences and strengthen the relationships between us (and build language pathways in the brain). There is also a distinction noted between positive comments made to the child about himself versus discouraging words and criticism. Obviously, more positive talk is better.

2. Tune In

For true communication to occur, the two minds must connect. Listen with your ears, your eyes and your heart to what your child is thinking, wondering and feeling. The term used to describe the in-the-moment connection between a parent and young child is “shared attention.” The baby looks up when a dog barks, so the parent makes a comment to the baby about the dog. The toddler pulls the parent’s hand indicating wanting a ride in the swing, so the parent talks about it as the child is lifted into position. Parent and preschooler read a book together with the parent drawing connections for the child between the pictures, characters and plot to the child’s real life experiences and interests. Tuning in when talking with your children is about being with your children in their moment.

3. Take Turns

Language is a two-way process. To develop higher intelligence and school success (as well as healthy relationships) parent-child communication uses turn taking. Again, this process can begin before birth, as the fetus makes movements that are replied to with gentle pats and talk from the outside world. Older siblings can enjoy this introduction to a back and forth dialogue that can be a starting point in their lifelong relationships.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek uses the term “serve and return” to describe the volley between “speakers” in a two-way conversation, whether it’s body language or actual words. A good dialogue between parent and child has “return and return and return,” she says.

These exchanges are not only rich with sharing needs, information and opinions with each other, they are the basis from which children can build all their later social exchanges — with friends, with teachers, with future bosses and clients.

Children who start out with a wealth of language skills tend to stay ahead, with social skills, language skills and school success. So start talking.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]