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Talking Children Up

The way you speak to a child determines how that child’s brain grows.

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According to the 2011 Data Book, published locally by the Urban Child Institute, how parents talk to their children has a profound influence, even before age 3. It can affect not only the development of early language skills but also a baby's ability to handle stress.

Children who hear calm voices and a variety of words have a much greater chance of academic achievement, physical health, and well-being. Babies who are not stimulated by calm conversation are more likely to struggle to learn and less likely to make positive contributions to our community as adults. A child's brain development irrevocably changes, based on the words that she hears in the first three years of life.

The 2011 Data Book provides research on brain development that emphasizes the importance of talking to a child. Our brains process information through nerve cells called neurons. Each neuron passes information to the next neuron through connections called synapses. During the first years of life, babies have more synapses than they need, and speech has a profound effect on which ones will persist once the brain begins pruning away unnecessary connections.

When a parent talks to a child, synapses in the language centers of the brain are stimulated, leading to stronger connections in that area. If a child hears too few words, many of those synapses are eliminated over time. These fundamental changes in the brain can affect a child throughout life.

Talking also plays a role in emotional development; it is a critical part of the bonding that happens between parent and child. As explained in the February edition of the institute's Research to Policy: "Only a few weeks after being born, babies are able to differentiate their mother's voice from other adults, and can tell the difference between normal and 'stressed' voices. Hearing develops before vision, and helps to support a baby's developing sense of security and comfort in the world as they listen to their parents' voices even before they come to recognize their faces." This means that our earliest memories do not have a visual component but absolutely have an auditory one.

In order to promote positive brain development in Memphis, the Urban Child Institute and the Neighborhood Christian Center have partnered to create a new initiative called "Touch Talk Read Play." The "talk" part of the initiative provides clear and concise tips to help families create a positive language environment for their children.

The program stresses the importance of using a variety of words with a child and the need to speak in a calm voice. Five-word sentences are an excellent way to share information with children. Naming things in a child's environment, such as colors, shapes, and animals, also builds a baby's vocabulary and his understanding of the world around him.

The program also emphasizes the need to use real words with children instead of baby talk. Babies speak gibberish as a way to practice vocalizing, but they need to hear adults use real words to help them master language.

Parents' tone of voice is another important factor. A serene voice lowers stress. According to research presented in the January 2012 edition of Research to Policy: "Exposure to high levels of toxic stress early in childhood has been shown to result in a range of poor physical, social, emotional and cognitive outcomes. As adults, individuals exposed to high levels of stress early in childhood are more likely to suffer heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other physical ailments. They are also more likely to struggle in school, have short tempers, and tangle with the law."

The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay once wrote "If I grow bitterly/like a gnarled and stunted tree/Bearing harshly of my youth ... It is that a wind too strong/bent my back when I was young." Although she was without today's knowledge of early brain development, she poetically conveyed the great responsibility we have to nurture children.  

If we do not speak kindly to our children, their brain development is "stunted." When we talk to our children using a rich vocabulary and a positive voice, we increase their likelihood of succeeding academically and becoming well-adjusted and productive adults.

Amanda Meyers, an employee of the Exchange Club, wrote this column for the Urban Child Institute's "Touch Talk Read Play" outreach program.

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