Last night I went to a neighborhood restaurant for an early Sunday supper. A really nice man who recently moved to our town was sitting at the next table with his five year old daughter and eight year old son. The children looked delighted to be there, and were happily sipping some kind of natural sodas through straws, while they waited for their dinner to arrive. The little girl seemed particularly pleased to be sitting next to her Dad, and periodically flung her arms around his neck and gave him the kind of kiss only an adoring preschooler gives her parent. He smiled warmly, said something funny that lit up her face, and then turned back to his i-phone.

I-phones are going to cause long term damage if parents aren’t careful. Again and again I see parents and their children in situations where, up until a few years ago, they had invaluable opportunities for the kind of idle chat that turns out to be essential to optimal intellectual development in general, and specifically to a child’s future ability to read. But now, instead of the exchanges researchers know to be important, I see little to no exchange- while children are looking around, or  playing, their parents are glued to some kind of communication device.

 Watch a mom pushing her toddler in a stroller, a dad waiting on line at the grocery sore with his preschooler, or a parent sitting in the waiting room at the dentist’s office with a five year old.  Up until very recently, you would’ve seen parents in these situations talking with their children. The little boy or girl would ask questions, parents would answer, and together they’d comment on whatever was happening at the moment (discussing the rabbit on the cereal box, the funny smell of the new tar on the road, the long icicles hanging off of the roof, or the mud tracks all over the carpet of the waiting room). You’d hear conversations about objects, people and events. You’d hear children ask for, and get, explanations of things that beyond their immediate understanding. These conversations wouldn’t be high falutin. But in their own everyday seemingly low-key way, such exchanges expand a child’s vocabulary, mastery of various linguistic forms, and skill at conversation. They help her understand the world around her, and teach her how to represent that world in an abstract system (words). 

Though it is so beneficial to a child’s intellectual growth, researchers such as Hart and Risley have shown that not all parents engage in this kind of talk, what they call “Non business talk”. In other words, talk that is not simply aimed at scolding or directing children’s practical activity. Until recently, social class and economic status seemed to be a dividing line. The kind of talk I described above, which seemed to happen frequently and naturally in middle class families, has not been found in poor families. And it seems to be one of the key reasons children from poverty are at risk for school failure, and children of middle class families have an advantage when it comes to learning to read (the core intellectual skill of school).

 Educators, researchers and health professionals have long tried to figure out why there are such persistent differences in the language environments of children in poor families, and what can be done to remedy the situation. Ironically, when I see all these middle class families, who buy good food for their children, worry about how stimulating their classrooms are, insist on healthy diets, jabbing away at their cell phones all the time, I begin to think that instead of closing the gap by lifting up the language environments of poor children, we’ll just close the gap by depriving middle class children of the kind of language interactions that have been so helpful to their development. Because what I see now, all of the time, are parents who seem kind and well meaning, almost completely absorbed by their devices- all of the moments around the edges of the day, which used to provide opportunities for valuable exchanges, have disappeared. Now, when children are with their parents, their parents are with their i-phones.

The point I am trying to make is this: parents who are concerned about their children’s school success and happiness should fuss less about the amount of sugar in the cereal, or whether the school provides enough challenge for their very bright child, and instead make sure that while they are hanging around conducting every day life, their cell phone is turned off and put away and they are available for the casual conversations that are the best school readiness program there is.

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