I have become convinced over the last couple of years that we are facing a crisis of bad parenting in this country. By which I don’t necessarily mean the usual complaints of overly indulgent parents or abusive parents, although these can certainly be a problem. What I find particularly problematic is a lack of knowledge about normal human development and appropriate interaction with children. It’s demonstrated by parents not knowing that they should ask their infants questions long before they can talk or that a 2 year old’s temper tantrum isn’t a sign of disrespect or that 5 year olds like rules. It’s also demonstrated by parents who teach their kids to be quiet rather than engaging them in the everyday activities of family life and listening to them struggle to put their thoughts into words.
At any rate, a new program in Boston is working to teach low income parents to talk with their children from a very early age and to respond to their children’s conversational cues rather than shushing them. You may have heard of the work done by Betsy Hart and Todd Risley which found an enormous gap in language exposure between low and upper income households with 9 month to 3 year old children. Low income parents spoke far less frequently to their children and used fewer words and less variety of words when they did speak than higher income parents. They also tended to issue 2 negative utterances for every one positive one to their children. In contrast, professional parents made 6 positive comments for every one negative comment to their children. Long term studies found that this difference translated directly into differences in academic abilities in 3rd grade. I have long thought that a program which educates the parents of at-risk kids in the importance of talking to their children needed to happen.
It’s not that these parents are bad people or even bad parents. I have known low income parents who found it odd that I peppered my babies with questions as we moved through our day. “He’s not going to answer you” was a frequent comment. They just thought I was odd and would have felt dumb talking to someone they knew didn’t understand them and couldn’t respond. I really think it’s a matter of education. Parenting matters. A lot. It’s just fantastic to see that people are starting to do this important work. Hopefully, this will be the start of programs which focus on families and parents over programs run by “experts” which can never hope to achieve what an engaged, knowlegable parent can do – no matter how much money we spend on them.