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The Not-So-Secret to Raising Smart Kids

childhood development, reading and children

Who cares when the kids start reading. What's really important is when parents do.

Of the early childhood milestones, first word has got to be the most loaded for the parents. When that first utterance occurs — before the first birthday, months and months after? –  says so much about the child’s native intelligence and how we’re doing as parents. At least that’s how a lot of us feel.

And sure, baby’s first words are a reward for all those careful decisions we made, both while pregnant and after the birth. “Oh, she’s talking at 10 months … the payoff to abstaining from wine for all those long months of pregnancy!”

“This breastfeeding really does work!”

“Good thing I took all that time off to be the one who is raising my child.”

All those things matter, in some ways. But they’re not likely the biggest influence on early childhood development and a child’s reading readiness and future performance at school, according to a new study from the U.K. What’s really getting kids ready to read — and do math, it turns out — is talking. Lots and lots of talking. Also, not too much TV and, you know the drill, reading to them while they’re young. And preschool! Basically, getting them in situations where they’re surrounded by words, written and spoken.

Researchers followed a group of kids who were born in 1994 and 1995 and tracked how often they went to the library, how many books each of them owned and how much TV they watched; they compared this data with future reading and math test performance. The bottom line is that social and economic background didn’t matter so much. Instead, more books/less TV did.

The Role of Language in Children’s Early Educational Outcomes, a report published in June, concluded that a child’s educational success can be set in the right direction before the child’s second birthday — well before they even begun attending school.

From the report [via ScienceDaily]:

“One message coming through loud and clear is that how a child learns in their very early years is critical for smooth transition into the educational system,” said Professor James Law, Newcastle University, who was one of the researchers in the University of the West of England-led study.

“Although we recognise that traditional indicators of social risk such as material wealth remain influential later on, what you do with your child and how you communicate with them when they’re under two is far more important than having a flash car or a detached house in the country.

“This is a very positive message as it gets us away from the belief that a child’s educational future is pre-determined by standard measures of socio-economic disadvantage such as income, housing or the mother’s education.”

I think this is also evidence for more support to families with young children — longer maternity and paternity leaves, quality and funded childcare so that instead of working to pay hundreds every month for babysitters and rent, they can just work on bringing in rent and spend more time with the kids.

Also, funding libraries! That great underloved resource in the U.S. Where I live, the libraries are closed on Sundays, which is sometimes the only day off many people have.

Finally, spreading the word. Kids don’t need a TV on in the background of every day. They can spend time with books or talking to their adults. There’s a big payoff in the end, we just have to make that investment in resources and educating parents up front.

Photo: bfhoyt via flickr

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