NurtureSchlock, Part 3/3

Examining the science in chapter 10 completes this discussion of how philosophy provides better guidance than social science. The studies covered in this chapter inform parents of which behaviors, methods, and materials “effectively” foster language development.

We must first distinguish between social scientific “effectiveness,” and aesthetic “appreciation.” The second is essential to all education, the first is peripheral. This is especially true for parents. Which do children need more–parents who are effective, or parents who are appreciative?

I can’t cite social science findings to support the central role of appreciation in the language development of children, but I can state my premise up front. Then we can see how it holds up to the science in chapter 10. Here it is:

Those who look at teaching and learning through an aesthetic lens believe children develop language as parents interact with them in appreciative ways (e.g. surprise, wonder, awe, satisfaction, encouragement, support, challenge, comfort, touch, and even praise, to name a few.)

Let’s look at chapter 10 to see what the research says. Does it offer insights that contradict or go beyond this?

Some of the old social science was so obnoxious it hardly needs debunking. Based on research findings that said language development would be accelerated if young children watched Baby Einstein or Brainy Baby DVDs, some parents bought these programs and sat their babies in front of the television. Later studies found “a dose-response relationship, meaning the more the children watched, the worse their vocabulary” (pp. 200-201). Eventually, more studies debunked the old science by “looking specifically at parent-responsiveness to infants, and its impact on language development” (p. 207).

According to Bronson and Merryman,

If there’s one main lesson from this newest science, it’s this; the basic paradigm has been flipped. The information flow that matters most is in the opposite direction we previously assumed. The central role of the parent is not to push massive amounts of language into the baby’s ears; rather, the central role of the parent is to notice what’s coming from the baby, and respond accordingly–coming from his mouth, his eyes, and his fingers.

This is a good description of appreciation. It suggests that parents ought to notice and respond to what their child is doing in ways that are understanding, imaginative, humble and generous.

Bronson and Merryman are saying the same thing I am saying. Appreciating a child’s natural growth and development is the key to language development. The authors’ language even sounds like mine. We seem to agree that language develops from interactions with appreciative parents. There it is–plain and simple.

But no–they couldn’t leave it at that. The premise of their book is that we need social science to tell parents how to overcome the “shock” of not knowing what to do in various child rearing situations. Parents don’t know how to promote language development until social scientific findings provide correct guidance.

So the authors looked at findings from language development research. They reported that, in a study of two girls’ language development, the one with the more responsive mother was developing language at a faster pace than the one with the less responsive mother. They summarized the study: “This variable, how a parent responds to a child’s vocalizations–right in the moment–seems to be the most powerful mechanism pulling a child from babble to fluent speech” (p. 209).

I explain the finding similarly, but more simply. Children develop language from interactions with appreciative parents.

To see if there is a causal relationship between parent responsiveness and the speed with which infants develop fluent speech, the authors looked at the studies of Michael Goldstein, who is famous for teaching parents to respond to a child’s vocalizations in ways that promote language development.

Goldstein conducted the following study with parents and their nine-month-olds. The children were dressed in denim overalls, with a microphone in their chest pockets. The mothers were in a small room with their children, wearing a head set that received audio from an attending researcher’s microphone. For the first ten minutes mothers simply played with their children, while the researcher was behind a one-way window, listening to the children’s vocalizations.

During the second ten minutes, when the babies vocalized, the researcher told the mothers to “Go ahead.” That meant a mother was “supposed to lean in even closer to her baby, pat or rub the child, and maybe give him a kiss.”

One of the authors described the results:

To my ear it was stunning — the children literally sounded five months older, during the second ten-minute period, than they had in the first. (p. 213)

Later they wrote:

To some degree, Goldstein’s research seems to have unlocked the secret to learning to talk — he’s just given eager parents a road map for how to fast-track their infants’ language development. But Goldstein is very careful to warn parents against overdoing it. “Children need breaks for their brain to consolidate what it’s learned,” he points out. “Sometimes children just need play time, alone, where they can babble to themselves” (p. 214).

So, what should parents do? Should the findings of these studies be tempered by judgments about when children need time to play alone? Of course they should. Parents simply need to “appreciate” their child’s development–in all the rich meanings of that term–and the child will develop language. On the other hand, children whose parents don’t communicate a rich appreciation will have slower language development. (I see “baby DVDs” near the television.)

Finally, Bronson and Merryman turned to Jennifer Schwade’s research on second year language development. They recognize that much of what parents do to “scaffold language for toddlers” is natural, but they devote pp. 216–222 to describing five techniques that do this particularly well.

At the end of chapter 10 Merryman reported that she was amazed by some of the interactions she had using these techniques with the twelve-month-old daughter of a friend. Merryman did some “object labeling” and then touched and moved close when the child vocalized. Then she did some of Schwade’s “motionese” activities. All worked as predicted, which was more evidence that this new science provides correct guidance for language development.

But throughout the chapter, including Merryman’s story, it was clear that these techniques are nothing more than different expressions of appreciation for a child’s development.

In other words, there was nothing in this chapter more valuable than:

Children develop language as parents interact with them in appreciative ways (e.g. surprise, wonder, awe, satisfaction, encouragement, support, challenge, comfort, touch, and even praise, to name a few).

This 3-part blog on the social science of child rearing is finished. Our society has a healthy respect for the natural sciences because they predict cause and effect in the natural world. Those predictions have been the basis for great technological advances. Unfortunately, over the last 50 years the same kind of respect has been given to social sciences, even though their findings predict nothing. It is good that we have psychological, sociological, economic, and political studies to inform our understanding about ourselves; but we should not allow social science findings to obscure the philosophy that is at the heart of education.

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#1 Harry Freeman on 11.18.10 at 11:28 am

As a father of three I can fondly recall my responses to my children’s early interactions with me. My daughter’s big blue eyes forever will remain a part of my memories. Her first word was a sincere “hello” and I could hear my voice, my intonation, my warmth in her voice. It was a simple “hello” which still resounds in my ears.
My son, at age six, was reading Captain Underpants, much to the chagrin of the librarian who thought it inappropriate. But he and I understood each other and we were soul mates in so many ways. He appreciated me and I him. But it was much more, it was love fostered through me spending wonderful hours with him, reading and appreciating who he was.
As an English teacher and pseudo-linguist I am proud of my children who all have a passion for poetry and composing a meaningful letter to me which exposes their souls.

#2 Debra Robert on 11.14.11 at 2:00 pm

Last Friday evening my husband and I went to dinner. Oh no, I immediately thought. As a teacher, I relish the time I get to speak with my husband. I kept noticing how well the 4 or so year old and 2 or so year old were sitting. Their parents were talking to them! This is a rarity, in my opinion, in today’s society. I went over and spoke to them. I’ve seen young children with CD players, earphones and older ones texting. I see parents ignoring their children. You have to give children credit for the consistent pulls on the shirt tails of their parents. When the nagging starts, children get yelled at. It’s a conundrum. Do we start with parenting or begin “educating” at school? Whether it’s called effective or appreciative doesn’t matter. Time and attention is what children need. They will appreciate the time and it will be effective. As a teacher and coach, I can influence students, teachers and model being a “virtuous” human being to all. As another human being sharing this earth, we can interact with other parents and students. We can be encouraging and supportive, appreciative and effective.

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