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A Mother’s Words

May 10, 2009

I’m reading a book called Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, by Paul Tough. I just finished a section that delves deep into the reasons behind the question, “Why are poor people poor?”

A few paragraphs jumped out at me with startling data that I wasn’t aware of. In the early 1980s there was a study conducted by researchers Hart and Risley in Kansas City. They selected 42 families from a variety of ethnicities and economic backgrounds and visited each family for a few hours every month for two years. They categorized the families into several groups: parents on welfare, working-class parents, and professional parents.

The researchers also gave the children in these families IQ tests. The results were astounding. The average IQ among the professional-family children was 117, while that of the welfare-family children was 79–a whopping 38-point spread.

The researchers also found that the gap in IQ directly correlated to the gap in the vocabularies between those two groups. By age three, children with professional parents had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, while those with welfare parents averaged 525 words.

Delving deeper into these results, Hart and Risley found that a child’s vocabulary was connected to the number of words spoken to them by their parents, as well as the types of words. In the professional homes, parents directed an average of 487 utterances to their children every hour, compared to 178 in the welfare homes (why that is, they don’t say).

As for the types of utterances, by age three, professional children had heard about 500,000 encouraging statements and 80,000 discouraging statements; that’s compared to only 80,000 encouragements among the welfare parents and 200,000 discouragements.

The researches concluded this about the gap in IQ: “As conversation moved beyond simple instructions, it blossomed into discussions of the past and future, of feelings, of abstractions, of the way one thing causes another–all of which stimulated intellectual development in a way that ‘Put that down’ and ‘Finish your peas’ never could.”

The lesson: Talk to your kids. A lot. And talk to them about all sorts of things–engage them in discussion, don’t just tell them what to do.

Mom and I under the ArchWhy am I writing about this today? Well, it’s Mother’s Day, and all this reading about how upbringing affects children and their IQs made me especially thankful to have a mother (and a father) who promoted discussion from a very young age. We weren’t television children in my family. We were always playing and interacting and talking, and that’s a product of the care and attention my parents gave us. Especially my mother, because she spent a lot of time with us during the day while my father was at work.

So Mom, I just wanted to tell you that I love you and that I’m so thankful for the way you raised me. You gave my brain the chance to grow.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Lori permalink
    May 11, 2009 8:11 am

    That book’s on my reading list; I think I heard Geoffrey Canada speak on “This American Life” in the not-so-distant past and it brought the book to my attention…

    Nice sentiment in the timing of your post.

  2. annemarie permalink
    May 12, 2009 11:52 pm

    The other day, Colin and I talked about photosynthesis and plants and where fruits and vegetables come from. Colin is 1 and didn’t do much talking back. Maybe I should ask his mom for a raise since I’m helping raise his IQ as well as making sure he doesn’t fall down the stairs…

    • May 13, 2009 3:53 pm

      Oh, she definitely owes you extra. That’s a pretty big perk for a nanny/babysitter–you’re increasing the kid’s IQ by talking to him/her instead of putting him in front of the TV. I think the key, though, is you find a way to interact and engage the kid through speaking with him/her.

  3. Bryce permalink
    May 26, 2009 8:20 am

    A couple comments:

    1. Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers, also discusses a really interesting study on how much parent’s talking to their kids affects their development and how it differs in regards to socio-economic class.

    2. How disappointed is your mom that, after raising you off of television as a child, you now watch almost every show on television and that you even recently proposed a text-messaging service that would remind you to watch television even if you weren’t already watching (for sports anyway). (Just kidding, Mrs. Stegmaier, I’m sure you are still very proud! Especially of the fact that Jamey has engineered a DVR/DVD-fueld television regime that virtually eliminates commercials!)

    3. Is it still ok to post comments 16 days after a post was posted? (And is it ok to use the word “post” three times in one sentence?)

  4. May 26, 2009 10:22 am

    1. Interesting.

    2. I really don’t even watch that much TV. I watch 45 minutes of TV a night during dinner, Thursday being the one exception (during the season).

    3. Yes. Another word for post is “entry.”

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