For parents of young children, language is a hot topic. When should kids start talking? How many words should they know and use? Are they talking too much or too little?
As children move into school, their language skills are constantly assessed, leading into those critical years when those who are considering college are often asked to demonstrate their language skills to gain acceptance into college or to determine their placement in college-level courses. As a parent and college educator, I absolutely see the importance of strong language skills and their correlation with success.
What the Research Says.
What can we as parents do to help our children strengthen their verbal intelligence? An exciting new study might have some answers. Researchers used a powerful and fairly new technique called fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). Whereas traditional MRIs take static pictures when the subject is lying still in the machine, fMRI allows researchers to study our brains when they’re in action – in this case, the brains of kids who were listening to stories.
The researchers also assessed the kids’ language skills with verbal tests and made recordings of their home lives to determine how many words they heard each day and to what extent they engaged in conversations with the adults at home.
While past evidence has shown that children being raised in poverty are exposed to fewer words on a daily basis and over the course of their childhood, a fact that has long been linked to academic struggles, this study found that what was more important to language development and the activation of the language center in the brain (known as Broca’s area) was the frequency of back-and-forth conversations (also known as conversational duets) between kids and their parents.
Those children who had more distinct conversations each day had more activity in their Broca’s areas and stronger language skills overall. In short, when it comes to kids and language, quality might be more important than quantity.
For those of us who make yoga and meditation part of our daily lives, how can we use this new research to engage more mindfully with our kids?
1. Limit Screens (Yours and Theirs)
I always laugh when I hear parents and adults talking about limiting screen time for children. Meanwhile, their phone doesn’t leave the iron grip of their hand!
A recent article summarizing this language research made a connection between the frequency of conversations and screen usage. Parents and kids who spend more time on screens have less time to spend talking to each other, so learning to limit screen time as a family (you too, adults!) is critical to creating space for both planned and impromptu conversations that can benefit our children’s verbal intelligence.
Consider having certain hours of the day when all screens are turned off. In my own home, I’ve found these are often punctuated by an initial cry of “I’m bored!”, which is just as likely to come from me as it is from my nine-year-old. Sometimes, the best stuff is on the other side of that boredom. Want a real challenge? Try making one day of the weekend a screen-free day. Think of all that time for conversations!
2. Read Together
My son just hit the age when he’s starting to read some books that really appeal to me, like Harry Potter. While we might think that the days of reading together end when our kids can read on their own, does that have to be the case? Reading the same books is a great opportunity to have conversations. Ask your children about their favorite characters or how they might’ve handled various plot points.
3. Ask for Advice
Image credit: Kate Swarm
One of the ways that I engage my son in conversation is to ask him for advice. I keep it age appropriate, of course. For example, I might tell him that I’m torn between staying home and reading a book and going to a yoga class. What does he think I should do?
I’ve found that the old saying is true… out of the mouths of babes… not only do I demonstrate to him that I respect his opinion, but I often get the most simple but profound responses in return. Kids have a unique wisdom to offer; ask them for it and you will often be surprised what you get in return.
4. Manage Your Stress and Your Time
So many of the people that I work with tell me that they feel crunched for time; some even tell me they feel as if they have no time and that making time for themselves is impossible. When I encounter someone like that, I encourage them to stop focusing on their time and to start focusing on their stress management. Being chronically or severely stressed can often make time management feel like rolling a boulder uphill.
Take care of yourself, relax a bit, and you will often start to see pockets of time magically appear once the veil of stress lifts. Spend some time reflecting on how you can build more time for conversations with your kids into your daily life, remembering that taking care of yourself and making time for relaxation will often help you to find more time for others.
By applying these four strategies, you will not only have more time to bond with your kids, but you’ll be helping to create language skills that will lead them to future success.