Let’s ignore the irony of reading and writing blog posts during Screen Free Week. Imagine you are reading this on one of those wide-ruled tablets we used in elementary school to practice handwriting, penned in green crayon, eagerly awaiting recess, the sandbox, trees to climb…
Baby talk. A cherished ritual, inspiring images of drooly bundles of joy cooing Mama, Dada, Ball, and/or Dog, while Mama and/or Dada coo back in singsong tones. Baby talk is simple. Baby talk is free. Baby talk is perfect just the way it is.
Added bonus: baby talk is how babies learn to talk.
The anxieties felt by parents regarding their children’s development are well known. Whether a byproduct of too much information, too many choices, too much peer pressure, or a prevailing too much, is hard to say. But it is real, and we’ve all felt it. Whether expressed via a well-child visit, a gathering of friends, or on Facebook, all parents want their children to be the best they can be, if not better. Thus, those first few words are precious, but soon we worry about the next ones. Which should they be? Is “serendipity” too hard? How about “Twitter?” How fast? Which is first, ABCs or 123s? What does Harvard expect by 18 months?
Anxiety is rocket fuel for consumer products, be they beauty care, vitamins, or children’s media and toys. Marketers are smart (they probably said tons of words at 18 months), and have leveraged family angst by developing – and prominently labeling – almost everything for young children as “educational,” promising all manner of oft-unrealistic, unsubstantiated “learning.” Thus, we buy videos for our little ones where characters sing about smart things like safari animals, or classical music, or shapes and numbers, hoping that they will learn these things. And whereas child development is a gradual process, buying or downloading appeals to our desire for an “educational” quick fix, ergo its vast popularity.
Unfortunately, for young babies screens simply don’t work well, if at all. Cute and jazzy as they may be, they lack the ability to read baby’s social and emotional cues and respond in a truly interactive, loving way. Thus, while appearing engaged, babies largely sit and stare, developmental engine idling. Marketers are on to this critique and now apply the term “interactive” to newer stuff like touch screens that flash and make noises, but this is a feeble surrogate for a real, caring, multi-sensorial human.
This point can not be stressed enough: to develop to their fullest potential, babies need loving humans who engage with them consistently in the real world. Parents are a child’s first teachers. There is no better nor more critical education.
Babies and young children learn to talk by talking. Analog mammals that they are, it is how they evolved, and evolution takes a really long time, regardless of incentives offered by Disney. Babies love to talk. They need to talk. Talking involves a complex interplay of verbal and nonverbal cues – facial expressions, emotion, reaction – which no media can offer. And hearing and engaging in everyday conversation with their grownups is how babies learn useful words – dog, ball, Mama/Dada, spoon, unplugged – ones they will remember. Even if they did learn from screens, unless their family is exceedingly adventurous, what use do they have for safari words? Wind instruments? Spanish when no one at home speaks Spanish?
The multi-billion dollar “smart baby” industry is a brilliant, profitable problem created to remedy a perfect solution. Talking to babies as a means to learn language did not need to be fixed by Baby Einstein.
As is commonly observed, babies listen before they can say. Thus, language development begins by being talked to. The power of talking to babies has been illustrated via a number of studies, notably researchers Hart & Risley, who in a 1995 study found a huge, unsettling disparity in the number of words heard per hour by children in welfare, working-class, and professional households. This added up to an estimated 30 million more words heard by age 3 by children from professional families than those in poverty. Predictably, this correlates strongly with IQ, literacy, and academic performance, creating a vicious cycle.
Of note in the context of this post for those thinking a daily dose of Eebee or Elmo is the remedy: “TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.” Only words shared by caregivers promoted language. This highlights the fact that screen-based media tends to interfere with – and replace – parent-child interaction. Parents and other caregivers feel a false sense of security while their child is watching Doc McStuffins or using a “learning app,” and feel less compelled to simply talk to them (correcting behavior excepted). And as with all screen media, “hearing words” is not the same as being spoken to. One engages the child, the other doesn’t. One is a path to healthy development, the other largely passes time.
Recent studies suggest that a major reason for this disparity is that many parents, especially lower socioeconomic households, do not realize how important talking to their children is. It seems too simple. The swirl of misleading marketing increases misconception, as does misinformation from peers and other dubious sources, creating pressure for children to “learn” via electronic media. Ironically, this is increasingly common in higher socioeconomic households, where technology is piled on to give children a “learning” edge (and keep them occupied). Thus, a challenge for pediatricians, grandparents, and “old-school” advocates is to overcome this media storm with reassurance that simple unplugged time together is not only cheaper and less anxiety-provoking, but best.
A recent New York Times article describes an exciting “Talk to Your Baby” initiative being launched in Providence RI, designed to address socioeconomic language inequities. In essence, parents are being coached to do just that – consistently talk to their babies – via sharing simple everyday activities, and then monitoring their progress. There is hope that the simplicity of the desired behavior and low price tag, coupled with evidence that it works, will prove more effective than other, more complex interventions. Whether through shared books, answering questions, or simply describing what a parent is doing during their regular day – tying shoes, cooking pancakes, making the bed – all of those words add up to great things. Let’s hope so.
For the rest of us not living in Providence, let’s join the movement towards simplicity and learning through real-world experience during the first three years. Three cheers for unplugging, snuggling up with real books, and wandering outside with a blanket to play in the yard (a beach for lucky ones), with a ball, a pet, or a box – and talking about them!
Thank you for reading – and happy Screen Free Week! Share your thoughts!