Thirty Million Words, How a Small Thing Goes a Long Way

This past week I took a break from blogging as my family grew by one. My husband and I were blessed to win custody over a dear 14-year-old boy who has been a long time family friend. I appreciate the grace shown by my readers that allows me to use this space to welcome Dametrius home.

Listening to Your Children

Two weeks ago, after writing about Mom Judgement, I promised to start sharing a few of my favorite parenting practices. As I’ve said before, I believe children are one of the earth’s greatest gifts and because of that belief, I am intentional about how I parent Declan, Henry, and now Dametrius. My greatest intention with all of my children is to stay present with them. I want them to know that their voice and needs are important to me. That they are sacred and loved.

This leads to what I believe to be a powerful parenting practice: Talking to my children. As a mama, it’s so very easy to have my day dictated by what I believe to be my things-to-do list, all while hustling past my children and husband. I’m a woman with a big appetite for life who thrives in creating content and networks that empower others. If left to my own devices I would be working on around 20 projects at any given time. Things like going to the gym, practicing yoga, and cooking in my kitchen. I can easily keep myself busy and entertained all by following my own agenda. In having children, I made a choice to shift how to do things in order to make space for them.

One way that I make space for my children is by taking time to talk to them. I found this method through the work of Dana Suskind MD, in her work, “Thirty Million Words.” Dr. Suskind was a pediatric cochlear implant surgeon who was frustrated by the different success rates of language retention among deaf children who received cochlear implants.

What she found through her research was that children from lower-income families heard, on average, 30 million words fewer than children from higher-income homes. She also found that “how” lower-income parents spoke to their children was more corrective in nature while higher-income homes were more affirmative in nature. In the sum of her work she states, “it all came down to how well the brain had been nourished with words.”

Feeding Your Child’s Brain

This message for me was loud and clear. How much and what we say to our children matters. Their little brains thrive just in being spoken to. From there, of course, we build their moral compass by what we say. To give them an advantage ‘academically,’ all we have to do is talk. So talk I have.

As soon as I became a Mama to sweet Henry, I spoke to him all day long well before he could understand. I’d explain what I was doing, where we were, and have conversations with him even when his responses were coos. I still do this with Declan. “That’s really cool, tell mama, then what happened?” As Henry got older I just kept talking. I talk about his day, his routines, his rules, his feelings, and so on. With both boys, I make a point to model back to them what they say to be throughout the day. With Declan of course this is sounds and now a few words! With Henry this is affirming what he’s saying. It can look like him telling me, “Mama I see a big dinosaur with Dana!,” and I say back, “Wow that’s so cool you saw a big dinosaur at Dana’s house!”. In doing this with both my boys I’m making a point to increase the number of words they hear from me every day but also to make them feel heard. I want them to know how important a tool language is.

Saying the Right Things

Now I know some of you might think this is overkill but most of us are already doing this! I don’t set “talk time,” for my children. I just talk to them as though they understand me and as though their contributions mean something to me. I let them know language matters. In both my boys I’ve seen first-hand effects of this. Henry’s language is beyond his age. Henry began speaking full words at 10 months, counted well by one-year-old standards, and, at his two-year check-up, spoke over 200 words and phrases (the developmental benchmark is 10 words). Declan is just now ten months and has said 5 or 6 words already! While a piece of this is who they are I also know from the research that how much we speak at home is directly contributing to their positive language development.

If you are already speaking to your child as an active parenting practice and still see a gap in their language there is a good chance there’s something else going on. It could be a speech delay or if this presents with other symptoms it could be autism. Both of these things while they can cause worry are treatable. It’s not anything you, beautiful mama, have done wrong it just means your child needs some extra help. So if you’re talking to your children and don’t hear language by 18 months please don’t be afraid. Just be aware that it may be time to talk to your doctor about looking into some testing to see what’s going on.

Speech Therapy & Treatment for Children

Once you have an answer you have a course of treatment. Almost every child can learn to speak, if they aren’t it’s just about getting them access to treatment. For speech delays, it’s speech therapy and as I’ve said before for autism it’s Applied Behavior Analysis.

I’m sharing this practice because I feel as parents we have a huge weight on us to do everything possible to help our children, “get ahead.” However, what our children really need is for us to be present and speaking to them, not making up preschool curriculums for our homes. It’s a small thing I’m doing that’s going a long way.


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