30 million words

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Things Parents Can Do

The Economic Policy Institute recently released a report:  Five Social Disadvantages That Depress Student Performance (Why Schools Alone Can’t Close Achievement Gaps).

The EPI being what it is – a think tank which promotes government solutions – it behaves as if it has a hammer and everything is a nail. Leaving that aside, there are many valuable lessons to be learned.

Parenting practices that impede children’s intellectual and behavioral development: Lower-social-class parents [tend to] engage in fewer educationally supportive activities with young children, such as reading aloud or playing cognitively stimulating games. Lower-social-class parents also [tend to] exert more direct authority and offer children fewer choices in their daily interactions, leaving them less prepared for “critical thinking” when school curricula expect it.

Parents’ failure to engage in educationally supportive activities is associated with children’s poorer academic and behavioral outcomes.

Why add the editorial phrase “tend to?” Because we are not automatons; some folks in lower SES levels do behave differently. Poor socioeconomic circumstances need not be your child’s destiny. As a parent, you can make choices. And, frankly, some high-SES parents do make bad choices.

The report continues:

There are well-validated programs that can offset these effects. High-quality early childhood care and education centers provide intellectually stimulating environments that disadvantaged children may miss at home.

Does the EPI understand economics? It is true that high-quality early childhood care and education centers do provide intellectually stimulating environments. Why do we not already have an abundance of such institutions? Because the supply of high-quality caregivers is not unlimited. It isn’t easy to create high-quality centers, and they surely do not fall from trees.

The poorly-performing parents of today already went to educational facilities which were approved by, funded by, and usually provided by government agencies. Why, in twelve years, did they not learn to be better parents?

Perhaps we’re looking for help in the wrong places. Instead of asking “what can government institutions do,” let us ask “what can parents do – and how can neighbors, relatives, and other folks aid in this process?”

The five things listed by the EPI are:

  • parenting practices that impede children’s intellectual and behavioral development
  • single parenthood
  • parents’ irregular work schedules
  • inadequate access to primary and preventive health care
  • exposure to and absorption of lead in the blood.

The first is directly under your control, and is where my experience and knowledge might be most useful.

What can parents take away from this report? It helps if you

  • read to children
  • play with children, not sports
  • talk with/listen to children

An interesting finding: “Patrick Sharkey, for example, has shown that the quality of the neighborhood where a child’s mother was raised has a bigger influence on the child’s achievement than the quality of neighborhood where the child was raised. ”

This suggests that my frequent remarks about the importance of a family culture of educational support – reading to children, playing with them, interacting with them – apply even when family fortunes rise and fall. The 30 million word research by Hart and Risley suggests a similar idea: young children benefit from heavy verbal interaction, as opposed to directive speech, which tends to dominate lower-SES households.

The report includes a table of the differences in “number of books” owned by various households. People with higher SES rank tend to have more books, on average. White people tend to have more, on average. The differences are not huge – 34 on the low corner of the grid, 145 at the high end.

Individual differences can be much greater – if you’ve ever visited a professor or other bibliophile, you’ll know that they often own thousands of books. Back when I was both young and poor, I was already a bibliophile with thousands of books – most of which were acquired cheaply at flea markets, garage sales, and discount stores. It’s a matter of choice whether your child grows up with many books or only a few, and it is certainly a matter of choice whether you read to your children or not.

The number of books owned is one of the most reliable indicators of whether your child will do well academically. But books themselves are not magical talismans; you’ll have to actually read and talk about books frequently, before your child comes to the conclusion that reading is valuable.

Another quote from the report:

By age 6, white children have typically spent 1,300 more hours engaged in conversations with adults than black children. Six-year-olds from affluent families have spent 1,300 more hours in indoor and outdoor recreation, churches, businesses, and other non-school, non-home, and non-caretaker settings than children from low-income families. Differences are greater still (1,800 hours) between children of parents with less than a high school education and children of college graduates. This gives children of high-income and highly educated families more background knowledge, the most important predictor of later academic achievement.

I stipulate that the research on which this statement is based is probably correct, but ill-focused and not as useful as it could be. I’m fairly sure that there is nothing about “being black” which necessitates this result. I argue that it is cultural. (see Sharkey and Hart and Risley, above.) Most importantly, it is a choice; something over which you have control.

If you are unemployed (as mentioned in the report), you have to spend time looking for work, of course. But are you truly spending 40 hours plus travel time, every week? I certainly did not. I had more time to spend with my children, when unemployed. I spent that time reading to them and otherwise interacting with them. This does not require “being rich” or “having white skin” – it’s just a choice, which was easier for me because it reflected choices made by my parents when I was young, and my conscious choice to be involved with my children.

Now, I grant that life is tougher when you’re poor – I’ve been there! And it’s tougher when you’re a minority; I’m not blind to the external pressures. But the only thing we can really change is our own behavior, and we do have a lot of influence on our own children; let us use that to best effect.

There’s a lot more in this report – I encourage parents to read it critically – but my summary: if you want to make a difference in your child’s cognitive skills, much earlier is much better than later. As for how to intervene:  reading, conversing, and playing. There’s a tag cloud to the right; (scroll up) you may find “30 million words” and other tags to be of interest.