Let’s talk: Childhood development and parent-child

Published on Wednesday, 16 November 2016, 9:36 p.m. Print Article

(19th February, 2015 NZ Listener - By Sally Blundell In Education)

Talking to children is crucial for their development – but today there’s alarming evidence the new generation suffers from a lack of interaction.

“Now my love, can we sit you on your mum’s lap? There we go, good girl.” Nine-month-old Anna Collins fixes her gaze on Christchurch Plunket nurse Victoria Woods. She leans in as if for an intimate conversation.

“Good girl. You’re doing fantastically. Mum, mum, mum – do you make this noise?” Anna gurgles, lifts her arms in the air, wriggles her feet, then pauses like she’s waiting for a reply.

Over the next 20 minutes, Woods maintains a steady if seemingly one-sided conversation with Anna, asking questions, pausing for a response, blowing raspberries, validating the sounds and actions of her young charge, providing a running commentary for each check and change while asking questions of Anna’s mother, Terhi Sinisalo. Anna keeps a constant watch. She glances up at her mother, checks her sister playing on the slide in the next room, smiles at the photographer.

All good. She turns back to Woods.

“Did we see some teeth?” Anna gives a wide gummy smile.

This is the art of language. Long before a baby articulates his or her first word, the groundwork for communication is laid in this intimate repertoire of chit-chat, repetitions, intonations, gestures, pauses and eye contact. It’s modelled in Plunket clinics and home visits around the country (last year Plunket saw 91% of all New Zealand newborns) and practised in homes at bedtime, feeding time, ideally any time within those all-important first 1000 days of life when young children acquire the foundational language skills necessary for spoken language, cognitive development, literacy and social skills.

“A baby arrives in the world recognising the sound of their mother and their father,” says Plunket’s national parenting adviser Brigid Wilkinson. “In the first six months of life they’re picking up all the subtleties of language – the patterns, the rhythms, the way the mother moves her lips, how language is used in the house.”

From this grounding emerge the first words, the first forays into short sentences, the transition from “mum mum mum” to “yes, no, why?”, the turn-taking that is the basis of conversation.

This process needs to be nurtured. As Stanford University developmental psychologist Professor Anne Fernald told the Guardian, “You need to start talking to them from day one. You’re building a mind, a mind that can conceptualise, that can think about the past and the future.”

Anything parents can do to help language development in the first five years is going to help children when they get to school, agrees Professor Elaine Reese from the University of Otago’s Department of Psychology. “Talking, reading books, telling stories, reciting rhymes, singing – it helps their phonological awareness, their reading; it helps them socially and emotionally and with every aspect of their academic achievement.”

This rich exposure to language, be it though books, stories, songs or simple dialogue, also helps to nudge children into more abstract thinking, opening up conversations about the past – children start talking about the past from the age of about 18 months – and, from two or three years old, the future.

We know this. In the Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study of 7000 New Zealand families, about two-thirds of mothers reported reading books to their two-year-old at least once a day, while 38% read books to their child several times a day (storytelling was less common, with only 19% of mothers telling stories to their child once a day or more).

Peering into a newborn’s bassinet, we slip into so-called mother- or parent-ese, that exaggerated, slow, sing-song way of talking. Don’t we?

“One might think it would come instinctively,” says Dame Lesley Max, a long-term children’s advocate and the founder of the social enterprise agency Great Potentials. “But if you haven’t had much experience of being a recipient of it and if the people around you don’t employ it, the chances of your using it or using it unselfconsciously are slim.”