Last week at breakfast, our family began discussing one of our favorite topics: what kind of animals we want to have on our farm someday. Benjamin recited his litany of dogs, goats, pigs, horses, etc. When he finished, I asked if he would help milk the goats. He casually agreed. Lucy stated simply that she wanted cats. Not exactly a cat person myself, I asked what she planned to do with these cats.
“Milk them,” she said.
Not wanting to spoil this dream just yet, I answered, “Sure, you can milk a cat.”
Haley looked at me skeptically.
“What?!” I argued, “They’re mammals. You could totally milk a cat! Mammary glands and all that.”
“Yes,” she replied, “But no cat is going to just let you milk it.”
This is, of course, all silliness, right? Just a funny conversation that might convince others that our family is a little weird but certainly nothing that will help our children learn or grow in any way?
Well, not quite.
Two decades ago, a study came out showing that “the most important ingredient in the recipe for a child’s future academic success is the sheer volume of talk that the child’s parents have with the child—from the child’s birth until age three.” Race or ethnicity didn’t matter. Wealth and education level of the parents might matter some, but these factors seemed to only contribute to the main factor: conversation. Children from more affluent families hear far more words than children from low-income families – 30 million more. This number is called the “word gap” and is a major indicator of future academic performance, vocabulary, and language acquisition abilities. The word gap also develops before the age of three and its effects can be seen much earlier. So, before most kids enter preschool, the number of words they’ve heard has already set the trajectory for future development. Now, there are some caveats. TV was totally unhelpful. No matter how witty the banter on Gilmore Girls, Lorelei can’t serve as a substitute mom and contribute to the word count. Listening to an adult talk on the phone was also unhelpful. The child had to hear both sides of the conversation.
Something else the study showed was that the children hearing more words were also hearing a much higher percentage of positive words. One of the author’s of the original study, Dr. Risley, pointed out, “If a parent only talks a little bit, the conversation is only about business. “Stop that.” “Get down from there.” “Come here.” But when a parent advances the conversation beyond business, the topics automatically change. The words used in conversation change, too. And that makes all the difference later in the child’s intellectual life.”
The study and the research that has followed are fascinating. There’s a lot to think about and the implications are enormous. Of course, there’s also a lot this study doesn’t tell us. What about the vocabulary of the parents? What about their stress level? Number of adults? Etc.? It’s impossible to account for all of this, however, there’s plenty of evidence that one of the best things parents can do to ensure the mental and emotional growth of their children is just to talk to them and each other. A lot. So, go ahead. Talk about cat milking. It’s for the good of your children.