Can We Disrupt Poverty By Changing How Poor Parents Talk To Their Kids?

12/18/2013 12:40 pm ET
Wendy Connett via Getty Images

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Small children in the most talkative homes hear, on average, 20,000 to 30,000 words in a day. That number may sound implausible. But all of the overheard conversations, nursery rhymes, and admonishments add up.

And, for upper-income children, they add up much faster than they do in homes deep in poverty. This creates a socioeconomic "word gap" between low- and high-income children.

This gap exists in the difference between reading and watching TV. It's in the difference between handing a toddler a bowl of cereal, and using that cereal as a ploy to talk about mouths and tummies. The gap widens because a low-income parent, who works two jobs, isn't around as much to talk to her children, or has less energy when she is home. And it grows because a child whose parents cannot afford a stuffed elephant may never have much reason to talk about elephants at all.


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