Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Idle Chatter and Childrearing

It isn’t news. It confirms research done at the University of Kansas and dutifully reported on this blog.

New studies from Ireland confirm that word count matters. The number of words a parent addresses to a baby influences brain development. The rule is: the more the better. Previous research has shown that this only pertains to conversation. A chattering television set does not produce the same effect.

Early research distinguished among different social classes. The higher the social class the more words parents spoke to their babies. Margaret Talbot wrote in The New Yorker:

In the nineteen-eighties, two child psychologists at the University of Kansas, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, began comparing, in detail, how parents of different social classes talked with their children. Hart and Risley had both worked in preschool programs designed to boost the language skills of low-income kids, but they had been dissatisfied with the results of such efforts: the achievement gap between rich and poor had continued to widen. They decided to look beyond the classroom and examine what went on inside the home. Hart and Risley recruited forty-two families: thirteen upper, or “professional,” class, ten middle class, thirteen working class, and six on welfare. Each family had a baby who was between seven and twelve months old. During the next two and a half years, observers visited each home for an hour every month, and taped the encounters. They were like dinner guests who never said much but kept coming back.

In all, Hart and Risley reported, they analyzed “more than 1,300 hours of casual interactions between parents and their language-learning children.” The researchers noticed many similarities among the families: “They all disciplined their children and taught them good manners and how to dress and toilet themselves.” They all showed their children affection and said things like “Don’t jump on the couch” and “Use your spoon” and “Do you have to go potty?” But the researchers also found that the wealthier parents consistently talked more with their kids. Among the professional families, the average number of words that children heard in an hour was twenty-one hundred and fifty; among the working-class families, it was twelve hundred and fifty; among the welfare families, it was six hundred and twenty. Over time, these daily differences had major consequences, Hart and Risley 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.”

Of course, it matters which words are chosen. A larger vocabulary and more complex sentence construction are better than a more limited vocabulary. One suspects that wealthier parents also possess more mental aptitude and that this might have something to do with brain structure.

Anyway, a researcher in Ireland has recently  confirmed the earlier results. Melissa Dahl reports:

Parents of tiny babies: When you’re home with the kid, keep a one-sided conversation going about anything and everything while you’re folding laundry, making dinner, or doing whatever else around the house. A steady stream of idle chatter from mom or dad’s mouth improves the child’s cognitive development, even more so than reading to them does, according to the results of a study recently published in the journal Language Teaching and Therapy.

Aisling Murray, of the Economic and Social Research Institute in Ireland, initially set out to investigate the importance of reading, and whether reading to infants was associated with higher scores on indicators of cognitive development than other language-based interactions between parent and infant, like talking. She expected that reading would win out; the question, really, was how much better reading was for language skills. 

Murray used data from the Growing Up in Ireland study, which included a sample of 7,845 infants. Parents were asked how often they read or spoke to their 9-month-old infants, and Murray and her team found that parents who said they “always” talked to their baby while doing things around the house tended to have babies who scored higher on a test designed to measure babies’ burgeoning problem-solving and communication skills; reading to the baby regularly, in comparison, was also associated with an increase in problem-solving and communication skills, though not to the same degree. 

I feel obliged to point out the obvious. I have to do it because no one seems capable of drawing a distinction between mothers and fathers. Everyone seems to be using the more gender neutral term “parents.”

And yet, we all know that women are far better at idle chatter than men are. A chatty and garrulous mother will be better at idle chatter than would a man who is the strong, silent type.

One suspects that women are naturally chatty because they possess a maternal instinct. While it is true that men can perform many of the tasks that constitute bringing up a child, it makes sense to say that women are naturally better at all of them. The chattiness factor is one that can be quantified, thus, that interests researchers.

This does not necessarily mean that a mother should stay home from work in order to care for her children. It does suggest that if her husband chooses to become Mr. Mom in her place, children will be hearing far fewer words. And that this will influence brain development. It also suggests that when a working mother chooses someone to care for her children she ought to choose a woman who has highly developed language skills and who is especially chatty.

Finally, while this research does not directly relate to what Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger called “idle chatter,” we should at least notice that Dahl is quote correct to use the term to describe a mother’s conversations with her baby. Rather than follow the philosopher in denouncing idle chatter as meaningless and superficial, we should notice that in some circumstances it serves an important purpose.

1 comment:

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: One suspects that women are naturally chatty because they possess a maternal instinct. While it is true that men can perform many of the tasks that constitute bringing up a child, it makes sense to say that women are naturally better at all of them. The chattiness factor is one that can be quantified, thus, that interests researchers.

Agreed - women are surely more "naturally skilled" at talking to/with infants and toddlers, even if this "instinct" is teachable so fathers or men (or quiet introverted mothers or women) can do better when they know that this skill is important and why.

There probably are "tricks" to learn to avoid boredom, and in part explaining activities while they're being done gives a context.

And context obviously matters - watching TV or videos can't clearly substitute, while some might assume that - researchers should also dismiss that "fix".

Its also a good reason to suggest single-child households are inferior. Someone has to be first born, but siblings surely help in language and social skills.