02/09/2013 02:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

More Than Just Language

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Deb Roy's TEDTalk, "The Birth of a Word," provides a visually thrilling account of the way in which his infant son learned more than 500 words during his first two years of life through the analysis of nearly 250,000 hours of home audio and video. However, an opportunity still exists to further explore this treasure trove of information, and mining this information will reveal the birth of healthy social emotional development, which many would argue is even more formative and foundational than language.

Healthy social and emotional development refers to a child's emerging ability to:
• Experience, manage, and express the full range of positive and negative emotions;
• Develop close, satisfying relationships with other children and adults; and
• Actively explore their environment and learn.

Much like Roy's recording devices during the experiment, a child's brain is perennially ON. Speaking your native language to your child and supplementing that with books and songs? Recorded. Responding in a predictable and contingent way to bids for help? Recorded. Lost your temper and spanked your child out of anger? Recorded. Engaged in a yelling match with your child's other parent? Recorded. The device is always on, and the only thing parents do get to determine is the nature of what's being recorded.

Roy touches on a number of critical topics in child development, from feedback loops to scaffolding, all within the important context of the child's environment. Feedback loops, which The Harvard Center for the Developing Child has termed "serve and return," are extremely critical for early childhood learning, both of a measurable kind, like language, to the "non-cognitive," such as social emotional development, which is so critical for success yet harder to quantify.

Much like a tennis match, when the child "serves," the caregiver needs to "return" feedback and close the loop. This is just as important for social emotional development as it is for language. When Roy's son says "gaa" for water, his caregivers return that serve with the correct word, "water." Similarly, when Roy's son smiled to connect with an adult, the adult likely smiled back. When a child seeks help when scared, that return becomes even more critical in building a strong social emotional foundation for future learning. If a baby feels safe, a baby will explore. And if a baby explores, a baby will learn.

Roy also spoke about the way in which the adults in the home simplified their language and gradually used more sophisticated words -- this is an example of scaffolding: we attempt to teach a new skill to a child by meeting her at her level, and then trying to take her just one step above. If we shoot too high, that will feel insurmountable. If we shoot too low, there is no incentive to learn, and the same is true for social emotional development.

D. W. Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst coined the term, "good enough mother." He was describing the natural and healthy manner in which a parent initially meets the infant's each and every need, then gradually and minutely "fails" the child, or pulls back and allows that child to learn coping skills and frustration tolerance. This is a critical aspect of parenting, and without it, the child is bereft in the face of a minor stress.

So I wonder, Dr. Roy, can we go back again and look at those 250,000 hours?

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