Posted on May 6, 2013

Working Class Babies Need Talking To

Jake Wallis Simons, Telegraph (London), April 12, 2013

Last month, the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayor’s Challenge–an annual American competition to find the boldest “local solutions to national problems”–awarded its $5 million “grand prize” to a rather unusual programme. Run by the city of Providence, Rhode Island, the project aims to teach poor parents how to talk to their babies.

According to the New York Times and other American news outlets, the “Providence Talks” programme will be based on research carried out by two psychologists from the University of Kansas, Betty Hart (who died last year) and Todd R Risley, who in 1995 published their findings in a book called Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. The results of these studies were striking. After six years of data collection and analysis, they established that while “professional class” children hear on average 2,153 words per hour from their parents, children whose parents were on welfare–the “Precariat”, as the BBC might have described them–hear just 616 (television didn’t count; it was found to have an adverse effect).

Thus, while the wealthier child will be treated to a near-constant stream of cooing commentary, poorer parents tend to limit their interactions with their babies to commands such as “Put away your toy!” and “Don’t eat that!” This meant that by his third birthday, the poorest child will have heard around 30 million fewer words than his middle class counterpart.

The implications, according to Hart and Risley, were striking. The quantity of words to which a child is exposed was found to have a profound impact on its future academic achievements, and even its IQ. Poor boys were found to be the biggest losers, as working-class parents tended to talk more to girls. The psychologists’ conclusion was radical and contentious. If everyone talked to their young children the same amount, “there would be no racial or socioeconomic gap at all”.

As the Mayor of Providence, Angel Taveras, and the Schools Superintendent, Susan Lusihe, explained in a video pitch for the Bloomberg prize, the problem is particularly pressing in Providence, where only one in three children enter school at the “appropriate literary benchmarks”. Mr Taveras told the Boston Globe that “I felt this was a big issue we could attack on a citywide level”, by implementing the Providence Talks programme.

This must be taken with a certain pinch of salt. It is almost certain that the disadvantages experienced by poorer children result from a variety of factors, not just the level of words heard as a toddler. Nevertheless, the research is sufficiently persuasive to have stood the test of time, and is widely thought to hold a great deal of truth. If the Providence Talks programme works, it could mitigate – to some extent – the disadvantage that children from poorer backgrounds are subjected to, and establish a (relatively) level playing field.

The vital importance of early childhood care has long been understood. Oliver James, the clinical psychologist and author, puts it very well: by the age of three, he says, the “electro-chemical thermostat” of the brain has been established. That is, on a normal day, when nothing hugely exciting or demoralising is taking place, the mood one naturally falls into is linked to the experience of early childhood. The psychoanalytic psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt agrees, arguing that a poor quality of care in the early years can cause a child to develop an emotional “black hole” in later life.

The type of care a child needs during this crucial time is simply that of an attentive, responsive parent. As Gerhardt explains in her seminal work Why Love Matters, research has hsown that when a baby experiences distress and a parent acts to relieve it, dopamine is produced in the baby’s brain which actively constructs the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for self-awareness, social awareness and other important skills. Prolonged experiences of stress can have the opposite effect. In other words, the brain of the unloved child will develop less healthily than that of a baby who receives much love and attention. This, combined with the aforementioned studies into the effects of talking to a baby, makes a compelling case for a higher priority to be placed upon early childhood care.

Currently, early childhood is sustaining an onslaught from a variety of sources. On the one hand, the Government is so keen to get women back into work that it provides powerful incentives for children to be separated from their parents and put into a large nursery well before the age of three, where they may not receive the attention they need. (Good quality early childhood care does not necessarily need to come from the mother; a father, grandmother or nanny, if sensitive to the needs of the baby and able to provide one-to-one care, can be just as good.) On the other, the ubiquity of television, iPads and mobiles creates an atmosphere of distraction and passivity, which can only have a detrimental impact on the level of quality time a parent spends with her children.

We ignore the needs of toddlers at our peril. The Britain of 2050 depends on the babies of today, and it is of paramount importance that we get it right now. Those vital, and very brief, first three years–and the women and men who have the wisdom to devote proper time and energy to it–should be properly valued and respected.