I observed two separate parents with their young children this morning. First, on my morning walk, I passed a young mother and her baby in a stroller. As they passed by, the mother made a funny noise with her tongue. The child, who couldn’t even see her, burst into laughter and joyfully imitated her. Later, I was at the local bagel shop. A dad and his toddler were sitting outside together in the autumn sunshine. The father was on his phone and the little girl was perched on a chair idly looking around.
Those two moments, in striking contrast, offer a glimpse into the opportunities we have to support our children's most fundamental learning. The mother with the stroller couldn’t be seen by her child, but was engaging her pre-verbal son in the vitally important modeling of the give and take of social conversation without uttering a word. The father at the bagel shop was missing the opportunity to engage in enriching, vocabulary-building conversation with his daughter about the beautiful world around them. They could have been talking about the leaves blowing off the trees, the squirrels collecting provisions for winter, the feeling of sunshine on their backs, or their plans for later in the day.
For many of us, the draw of our cell phone is extremely powerful. In any quiet moment we pick it up for information, communication, and entertainment. Unfortunately, our frequent cell phone use is getting in the way of our children’s essential development because it gets in the way of our indispensable conversations with our children.
In the early years of a child’s development it may not seem like they have much to say but the conversations that parents engage in with their children are vital to their language development which has long term effects on their success in school, not only in reading and writing, but across the curriculum. From the earliest call and response babbles with your baby, to reading stories, to discussions about the world around you, you are strengthening your child’s vocabulary, teaching him about the give and take of social relationships, deepening his understanding of his world, and letting him know that he matters.
So when you’re with your child in a quiet moment, instead of picking up your cell phone, try this instead:
• make silly sounds
• say simple words and phrases, such as “Mama,” “Dada,” and “I love you.”
• narrate for your child what you are doing, “Let’s go to the grocery store. What should we get?”
• read engaging stories with rhythmic text
• sing and make up silly songs
• make eye contact when you’re talking
• respond to your child’s utterances and gestures
• recognize that your child is able to understand more words than she is able to say
• use real words to respond to requests, “Do you want milk? Here’s your milk.”
• introduce greetings and encourage interaction with others, “Wave bye-bye to Grandma.”
• play games with songs
• continue to enjoy engaging stories and books
• introduce the sounds that animals make and the words for parts of the body
• talk about what your child sees and hears in the environment, “I hear the garbage truck. Let’s go see it!”
• engage in on-going conversation about what is going on in the child’s life
• make observations about the world around you; discuss what your child is seeing and hearing
• respond to your child’s seemingly-endless questions
• respond to your child’s observations and interests
• read books that relate to your child’s interests (even if that includes reading the same book over and over again)
• sing songs (even if they are the same songs over and over again!)
• expand your child’s experiences by going to new places and meeting new people and then take the opportunity to talk about them and reminisce about them later
The more you engage in conversation with your child. The more you will know what to talk about. And remember that while you’re talking you are building vital skills for your child’s educational development.
As much as our cell phones seem important in the moment, it’s essential to understand that when you choose to be on your cell phone when your child is present, you are actively missing out on significant educational opportunities for your child which affects their success at school.