Conversations with young children can be charming, annoying, or simply baffling. However, new research suggests that they are also essential. Researchers from Harvard University found a direct link between the development in children of the parts of the brain which deal with language and the number of conversations they have with adults.
It may seem obvious that talking to children helps them learn to talk, but there’s more to it. What was important, the researchers found, was turn-taking. In other words, this is not just about lecturing kids, or nodding and humming while they ramble on, but listening, responding, and encouraging them to listen and respond in return. It means getting down to their level physically, making eye contact, and really engaging with them.
It can be difficult, in our busy lives, to sit down and have a chat with kids when their interests and concerns might be so different from ours. One journalist from the Guardian, reporting on this news, described listening to his three-year-old as “like being caught in a feedback loop of all David Thewlis’s conspiracy theory rants from Naked, played simultaneously at full volume inside a metal dustbin.” Children are all different too. Some never seem to shut up, while others may prefer to sit in silence with a book.
However, there is an additional challenge which was not faced by previous generations: the prevalence of screens. Where a family might once have sat together over dinner and discussed their day, they may now all sit around each looking at their own phone or gadgets.
It can be easy to think, if kids are occupied and content, and are using “educational” apps, that everything is fine. However, as this new research demonstrates, no device can ever replace human interaction. In my days working in early years development, a speech therapist told me about an “epidemic” of language delay in the area. “But there’s not an epidemic of physiological problems,” she went on. “It’s down to parenting by screen.”
As in many areas of life, the challenges are greater for parents in Beijing’s international community. As well as the difficulty of finding time in this hectic metropolis, many of us rely on ayis to provide daycare; and however loving they are to their charges, they often have little English, and can’t provide that crucial conversation.
Sharing conversation with children is not just about brain development. It’s a matter of showing them respect, and earning their respect in turn. It’s a way of finding out what’s happening in their lives and in their minds, and heading off problems before they become serious. And it can be fun; kids often have a hilarious sense of humor.
So next time you’re sitting down to eat, put away your smartphone and ask your kids how their day has been. You might just be surprised at the results.
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