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This Father's Day -- Looking Back on What Matters Most

06/15/2012 04:06 pm ET | Updated Aug 15, 2012

I can still remember the feeling of waiting to see my father's red Volkswagen Beetle coming down the street at the end of the day. The kids in my neighborhood would play outside until we were called home, one by one, for supper. Many were called in early; their moms wanting to get dinner over with since their fathers would likely be late that night. But my dad, by hook or by crook, almost always made it home on time to join our family at the dinner table. Those family meals were often the highlight of my day.

In hindsight, I recognize how hard it was for my dad to do this. He was a rising manager at Polaroid and he had employees, equipment and shifts to keep on schedule 24-hours a day. While I'm pretty sure my dad will have few specific memories of the food or the conversation all those nights (to be honest, I don't, either), I do remember that both of my parents were there every night, fully engaged with their three children. What we talked about seems inconsequential now, but the fact that we routinely talked is what mattered.

Decades later when I became a parent myself, I began to truly appreciate what my dad had done. I imagine it was extremely tempting for him -- it was for me -- to assume he could sequence his life. He might have thought he could focus for a decade or so on getting ahead in his career, believing his family would understand. Then, when we really needed him -- say, in high school -- he could finally turn his attention to his three children having established himself professionally.

But had he done so, he would have unwittingly missed what may have been the most significant years of our childhood. They might not have been high return on investment years for him -- you don't get a lot of tangible rewards day-in, day-out as a parent. Not, say, compared to a promotion or raise at work. But an investment in a child needs to have been made long before a parent can see the payoff -- even earlier than you might realize. As we chronicled in our book, How Will You Measure Your Life? (Harper Collins, May 2012), there's considerable research emerging demonstrating just how important the earliest months of life are to the development of intellectual capacity.

Language Dancing -- Early Communication with our Children

Two researchers, Todd Risley and Betty Hart, studied the effects of how parents talk to a child during the first two and a half years of life. After meticulously observing and recording all of the interactions between parent and child, they noticed that on average parents speak 1,500 words per hour to their infant children. "Talkative" (often college-educated) parents spoke 2,100 words to their child, on average. By contrast, parents from less verbal (and often less-educated) backgrounds spoke only 600 per hour, on average. If you add that up over the first 30 months of a child's life, the child of "talkative" parents heard an estimated 48 million words spoken, compared to the disadvantaged child who heard only 13 million. The most important time for children to hear these words is the first year of life.

Risley and Hart's research followed the children they studied as they progressed through school. The number of words spoken to a child in their first 30 months had a strong correlation with their performance on vocabulary and reading comprehension tests as they got older. And it didn't matter that just any words were spoken to a child -- the way a parent spoke to a child had a significant effect.

The researchers observed two different types of conversations between parents and infants. One type they dubbed "business language" -- such as, "Time for a nap," "Let's go for a ride," and "Finish your milk." Such conversations were simple and direct, not rich and complex. Risley and Hart concluded that these types of conversations had limited influence on cognitive development.

In contrast, when parents engaged in face-to- face conversation with the child -- speaking in fully adult, sophisticated language as if the child could be part of a chatty, grown-up conversation -- the impact on cognitive development was enormous. They called these richer interactions "language dancing," and it included being chatty, thinking aloud and commenting on what the child is doing and what the parent is doing or planning to do. "Do you want to wear the blue shirt or the red shirt today?" "Do you think it will rain today?" "Do you remember the time I put your bottle in the oven by mistake?" and so on. Language dancing involves talking to the child about "what if" and "do you remember," or "wouldn't it be nice if" -- questions that invite the child to think deeply about what is happening around him. And it has a profound effect long before a parent might actually expect a child to understand what is being asked. In short, when a parent engages in extra talk, many, many more of the synaptic pathways in the child's brain are exercised and refined.

This matters. A child who has heard 48 million words in the first three years won't just have 3.7 times as many well-lubricated connections in its brain as a child who has heard only 13 million words. The effect on brain cells is exponential. That means children who have been exposed to extra talk have an almost incalculable cognitive advantage.

What's more, Risley and Hart's research suggests that "language dancing" is the key to this cognitive advantage -- not income, ethnicity or parents' education. A child who enters school with strong vocabulary and strong cognitive abilities is likely to do well in school early on and continues to do well in the longer term. It's mind-boggling to think that such a tiny investment has the potential for such valuable returns.

Every time I tell a parent about that research, I can see the panic run across their face. "Do I 'language dance' with my children?" Hopefully, most of us instinctively do. My dad and my mom certainly did. As I think about all the reasons to celebrate my wonderful father on Father's Day, I'll remember those family dinners and how hard he worked to make sure he was there -- and engaged. More important than the father-daughter dance at my wedding, every night for years before, we "language danced" together.

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