As I was checking out of the Bath and Body Works store at the mall, my 17-month-old daughter on my hip, the young clerk made an unexpected comment to me. “You’re the best mother I have seen in a while,” she told me. Startled, I thanked her, but wasn’t quite sure what prompted the comment.
“Really,” she said. “I mean it. I mean, working here, I see a lot of mothers, and you’re really one of the best. You actually talk to your kids.” I did a quick replay in my mind of the past 10 minutes I had spent in her store to see if I could see what she saw. I had carried my daughter around, talking about soap scents and asking her questions and naming the products we bought. None of this seems remarkable to me, nor does it seem noteworthy. But, perhaps, it was.
You see, as an elementary school teacher and mother of three young children, I find myself, in no matter what situation, having a verbal, running commentary of whatever it is I’m doing. Whether emptying the dishwasher and naming the utensils I’m putting away, narrating the babies’ baths at night and telling them all the body parts I’m washing, or narrating through a math problem I’m solving on the board with my students, my life does not occur solely in my brain. Children do not learn language solely through formal means, such as books or schooling. Children learn language from hearing language. They learn words, develop their vocabulary and name their world as we as adults name it for them.
Moments before I entered that store at the mall, I was playing with my twins around the fountain. They were running around, laughing and pointing at everything, and I was running after them, naming all the things they were seeing. Sitting on the side of the fountain was another young mother with her little girl, maybe about 2 years old. The girl sat silently, watching me and my kids and looking at the fountain, while her mother played a game on her phone. The moment saddened me as a missed opportunity for a parent to connect with a young child, and also as a missed opportunity to develop her language and engage her in her world.
It is no secret that children who come from poverty enter kindergarten with far fewer words than their more affluent counterparts. Countless studies will attest to this and attribute it to the number of books in the home, the literacy level of the parents and the accessibility of quality preschool programs. But the common theme is exposure. The more words children know entering school, the more successful they prove to be.
One does not have to have an education background or a college degree at all to be able to foster this kind of language development in children. It is something that all parents can do, and is free and accessible. So, here is my advice: Talk to your kids. Tell them what you’re doing, what they’re seeing, what they’re hearing, what they’re tasting. Ask them questions when they are too young to understand or know how to answer. Talk to them about things they don’t even know, and narrate your life and daily activities in a way that seems ridiculous. Count how many apples you’re buying at the supermarket, ask them questions, tell them about the gas you’re putting in your car. Pay attention to what they point at and tell them the word. When they say, “buh” for “ball,” celebrate and respond with, “Yes! That’s a ball!” Name their world.
Watching this young mother on her cellphone got me wondering how much cellphones and other technology have affected the parent-child relationship, and therefore a child’s early exposure to language in the moment. Because the key to naming their world is knowing their world, and we have to be present, not just physically, to do so.
It is worth noting that for some reason, I seemed remarkable to the clerk in the store, simply for speaking to my child. But the good news is, what I was doing was not remarkable. And it was not impossible. Words are everywhere. Name their world.
Credit: The Intelligencer