Let’s eavesdrop on three moms and their toddlers at lunchtime:
Mom 1: “Okay, Noah, let’s eat.”
Mom 2: “Okay, Emma, it’s time to eat our lunch. Let’s see what we should have. Oh, look, it’s carrots!”
Mom 3: “Okay, Liam, it’s lunchtime. Are you hungry? Mommy is so hungry! Let’s see what we have in the refrigerator today. Oh, what’s this? It’s orange. Could it be apricots? Could it be sweet potatoes? Let’s see the picture on the jar. Yum, it’s carrots!”
Yup, they’re all following some of the smartest parenting advice around: “Talk to your baby.”
It’s probably the least expensive, most helpful way we can boost our kids’ brainpower, researchers say.
Simply talking to them face-to-face early in life changes their brain structure and gives them a higher IQ. A bigger vocabulary. Better reading skills. Better test scores. A brighter future.
“Hearing this information and doing it, though, can be completely different,” says Billie Enz, emeritus professor of early-childhood education at Arizona State, who has studied the effects of parents’ talk on kids.
It’s HOW we talk to them that’s key.
Take those three moms. The first mom sticks to directives (do this, do that). The second mom adds more words—a step in the right direction.
The third mom strikes brain gold. She uses lots of descriptive words and asks questions in a conversational style. She’s also building word links—at lunch we’re hungry, the food comes in a jar, there are different kinds of foods that are the same color.
“Saying the same thing in different ways helps a child’s brain organize, categorize, and integrate information,” Enz told me.
It’s not hit-you-over-the-head with lectures and lessons, but our kids are learning just the same.
Talking a lot with those who can’t carry much of a conversation doesn’t always come easily, Enz told me. It’s especially a challenge for those of us…
- who never spent a lot of time around babies before having one. Even talking to our own, before he or she can say much back, can feel weirdly self-conscious.
- who had parents who were quiet. If they weren’t big talkers, Enz says, we may be less inclined to jabber around the house ourselves.
- who are extremely stressed. No surprise that extreme money or work stress leaves some parents hard-pressed to focus on more than the basics.
- whose phone is an extension of our hands. Okay, show of (phone-carrying) hands: Who DOESN’T that apply to? That just means we have to be more conscious than ever about breaking off to talk to our kids.
- who get the general idea but still aren’t sure what it is we’re supposed to be saying. (Baby talk? Life lessons? Physics 101?)
What KIND of talk? NOT baby talk.
You actually have to work kind of hard to make the goo-goo, ga-ga silly sounds of baby talk. But without even thinking about it, most of us naturally do something far better: We use a speaking style that’s developmentally pitch-perfect and changes as our babies grow, Enz says.
At first, we use “parent-ese.” That’s a sing-song way of speaking that’s a little bit slower and more clearly enunciated than regular speech, so our baby can hear the words. Parent-ese is also a little higher-pitched. We emphasize certain words, or repeat them.
“Hi, BaBEE! How ARE you today? How’s your DI-per? Uh-oh, it’s wet, wet, wet!”
It’s no coincidence we do this. Studies show that these are the kinds of sounds that infants hear best. What’s more, babies who hear parent-ese at age 1 babble more than babies who hear more adult-like speech and are speaking many more words by age 2, showed a 2014 study by the University of Connecticut and the University of Washington.
“Gradually, as the child begins to talk back to you and use sentences, first with two or three words and then longer—we automatically adjust,” Enz says. We use more different types of words and more descriptive words:
“Where’s your big red ball with the shiny spot on it? You know, the one that looks like Superman’s cape?”
Especially between ages 3 to 5, there seems to be a “gigantic window of opportunity when kids are especially receptive to learning new words,” Enz says. They can learn up to 10 new words a day—if they’re exposed to them, she says.
What kind of talk? Detailed talk!
Those three moms at the beginning of this story show how using descriptive words and other details adds richness. The third baby hears more new words, learns how they go together, and picks up their meanings.
In the 1990s, University of Kansas researchers led by Betty Hart and Todd Risley went into homes and actually counted how many words parents spoke to their children. By age 4, they found, kids in language-rich homes had heard 32 million more words than those whose parents talked less. And the word-rich kids wound up with higher IQ scores, regardless of parental income.
What kind of talk? Engaged talk!
Why don’t we just play recordings of voices 24/7? Because it’s the interaction and the back-and-forthing that’s also critical. You talk, your baby listens. Your baby babbles, you reply. You pay attention to each other and subtly adjust your responses accordingly.
That 2014 study by researchers at University of Washington and University of Connecticut, for example, found that babies babbled and then talked the most when they were exposed to 1:1 talk between adult and child. It’s no coincidence that “Take turns” is one of the three key ideas behind The 30 Million Words Initiative, a parent-education program developed by University of Chicago researchers and based on that now-famous Kansas study. (The other two are “Tune in”—notice when your child is talking or listening—and “Talk more.”)
Reading is talking too. That’s worth mentioning, Enz says, because many parents she works with find this an easy way “in” to talking more. We tend to be more interactive when we’re reading aloud, which is a new skill we learn with babies and toddlers.
“I think that for some, it’s easier to remember to ask open-ended questions, describe things, ask what will happen next when you’re reading than when you’re focused on something more routine,” she told me.
Where to say it: The “Talking House”
To give you some idea of the simple things there are to say to a young child in your daily life, take Enz’s guided house tour:
- Describe what’s happening during a bath: the slippery soap, the warm water, the soft towel, the tickles of having your toes washed.
- Talk about the water toys: The duck floats, the cup pours, the fish toy squirts.
- Sing bath-time songs (“Rubber Ducky,” “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”).
- Keep phones and other devices out of the bathroom (for safety and attention both).
- Talk about the food you’re preparing: the colors, textures, smells, tastes.
- Use action words: Washing, chopping, washing, stirring, tasting.
- Narrate setting the table: “Here is Daddy’s plate, here is your sister’s plate….”
- Demonstrate using “please” and “thank you” while sharing food at the table.
- Have conversations while you eat, without TVs, phones, or other devices—starting this habit from babyhood makes it easier for everyone to follow going forward.
Living room talk
- Don’t just hand over toys; talk about them, make up stories about stuffed animals, or what the train is doing, and so on.
- Ask your child to pick up certain toys by describing them: “José, please pick up the toy that has four blue wheels.”
- Watch videos together and talk about the characters: “”Who is your favorite?” “What color is he?” “Can you dance like that?”
- Label and describe clothes, talking about their color, style, and textures: “Today, we’re wearing a warm, woolly sweater because it’s cool outside.”
- Sing songs as you change diapers.
- Read books as part of your bedtime routine. You don’t have to stick to the written words. Make up questions: “What color is that animal? What does a cow say?” Riff off what you see: “Goodnight moon, goodnight lamp, goodnight blocks, goodnight train.” Or, “Look, the bunny has blue pajamas, just like you.”
- Turn off your phone during bedtime routines and tuck-ins so nothing competes with this great talk (and wind-down) time.
Little brains need quiet time too. Don’t worry that your kid won’t make the Ivy League if you fail to yammer 24/7. In fact, it’s best if we don’t talk incessantly, Enz told me. Everybody needs a break!
Just follow your child’s cues. Make a point to talk when he or she is awake and alert, and wind things down calmly when it’s time for rest.
It sounds like pretty commonsensical stuff, and it is. The magic lies in how powerful it is to those developing brains—which are furiously making new connections and still growing during these first years of life. We just have to be conscious of doing this simple thing in the face of everything else that’s competing for our time and attention.
After all, talk is cheap. And priceless.