Listen to these 3 moms talk to their toddlers. Guess who’s building the most brainpower.
Let’s eavesdrop on three moms and their toddlers at lunchtime:
Mom 1: “Okay, Noah, let’s eat.”
Mom 2: “Okay, Emma, it’s time to eat our lunch. Let’s see what we should have. Oh, look, it’s carrots!”
Mom 3: “Okay, Liam, it’s lunchtime. Are you hungry? Mommy is so hungry! Let’s see what we have in the refrigerator today. Oh, what’s this? It’s orange. Could it be apricots? Could it be sweet potatoes? Let’s see the picture on the jar. Yum, it’s carrots!”
Yup, they’re all following some of the smartest parenting advice around: “Talk to your baby.”
It’s probably the least expensive, most helpful way we can boost our kids’ brainpower, researchers say.
Simply talking to them face-to-face early in life changes their brain structure and gives them a higher IQ. A bigger vocabulary. Better reading skills. Better test scores. A brighter future.
“Hearing this information and doing it, though, can be completely different,” says Billie Enz, emeritus professor of early-childhood education at Arizona State, who has studied the effects of parents’ talk on kids.
It’s HOW we talk to them that’s key.
Take those three moms. The first mom sticks to directives (do this, do that). The second mom adds more words—a step in the right direction.
The third mom strikes brain gold. She uses lots of descriptive words and asks questions in a conversational style. She’s also building word links—at lunch we’re hungry, the food comes in a jar, there are different kinds of foods that are the same color.
“Saying the same thing in different ways helps a child’s brain organize, categorize, and integrate information,” Enz told me.
It’s not hit-you-over-the-head with lectures and lessons, but our kids are learning just the same.
Talking a lot with those who can’t carry much of a conversation doesn’t always come easily, Enz told me. It’s especially a challenge for those of us…
who never spent a lot of time around babies before having one. Even talking to our own, before he or she can say much back, can feel weirdly self-conscious.
who had parents who were quiet. If they weren’t big talkers, Enz says, we may be less inclined to jabber around the house ourselves.
who are extremely stressed. No surprise that extreme money or work stress leaves some parents hard-pressed to focus on more than the basics.
whose phone is an extension of our hands. Okay, show of (phone-carrying) hands: Who DOESN’T that apply to? That just means we have to be more conscious than ever about breaking off to talk to our kids.
who get the general idea but still aren’t sure what it is we’re supposed to be saying. (Baby talk? Life lessons? Physics 101?)
What KIND of talk? NOT baby talk.
You actually have to work kind of hard to make the goo-goo, ga-ga silly sounds of baby talk. But without even thinking about it, most of us naturally do something far better: We use a speaking style that’s developmentally pitch-perfect and changes as our babies grow, Enz says.
At first, we use “parent-ese.” That’s a sing-song way of speaking that’s a little bit slower and more clearly enunciated than regular speech, so our baby can hear the words. Parent-ese is also a little higher-pitched. We emphasize certain words, or repeat them.
“Hi, BaBEE! How ARE you today? How’s your DI-per? Uh-oh, it’s wet, wet, wet!”
It’s no coincidence we do this. Studies show that these are the kinds of sounds that infants hear best. What’s more, babies who hear parent-ese at age 1 babble more than babies who hear more adult-like speech and are speaking many more words by age 2, showed a 2014 study by the University of Connecticut and the University of Washington.
“Gradually, as the child begins to talk back to you and use sentences, first with two or three words and then longer—we automatically adjust,” Enz says. We use more different types of words and more descriptive words:
“Where’s your big red ball with the shiny spot on it? You know, the one that looks like Superman’s cape?”
Especially between ages 3 to 5, there seems to be a “gigantic window of opportunity when kids are especially receptive to learning new words,” Enz says. They can learn up to 10 new words a day—if they’re exposed to them, she says.
What kind of talk? Detailed talk!