WHTNEY: Talking to kids

“Why do you guys talk to her like that? You talk to her like she’s an adult.”

It was an innocent enough question from a friend, but one I hadn’t considered until he asked.

When my friend Alec came to stay at our house for a few days recently, it was his first introduction to our daughter. She’s 2 now, and talking up a storm, and we’re talking back.

We’ve never been big baby talkers though. When Bryan and I ask Olivia to do something, we ask her to do it the way we’d ask each other — a normal tone, no goofy inflections or voices.

It was never a thing we decided to do, it’s just the way we started doing things.

In fact, talking to Olivia was something I worried about before she was born. I vaguely knew that it was important, and heard somewhere that I was supposed to be reading to her from infancy. But I was legitimately worried about this. “What am I supposed to say to a baby?” I thought.

Spoiler alert: Turns out there’s plenty to say to babies. And you can say pretty much anything you want until they turn 2 and start repeating it.

Are we doing something right by talking to our daughter the way we do? Does the way we talk matter, or is talking at all enough to help her grow and learn?

Well, someone else wondered that too, long before me.

In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley at the University of Kansas published a book called “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.” Their research explored how parents of different socioeconomic backgrounds talk to their babies. They observed families interacting with their babies for one hour, transcribed every single word they spoke, then checked back with the kids when they were 9 years old to see how they were doing in school.

Their findings? “Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words,” according to The New York Times article “The Power Of Talking To Your Baby.” “By age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family. And the disparity mattered: the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.”

So in a word, yes. Constant chatter with your littlest family member matters. And because it’s so important, Providence, R.I. has launched a program based on this study, titled simply “Providence Talks.” The program is designed to teach families about talking to their babies (one theory about the communication gap between low- and middle-income families suggests low-income parents just aren’t taught the importance of communicating with babies), and to discover if there’s a best way to talk to them.

So I can’t say for sure that my “adult talk” is best — researchers don’t yet know if that much matters. But I guess I’ll keep yammering on in Olivia’s general direction.

After all, she is a 2-year-old. My own unscientific research suggests she might not always be listening. Do you think it’s possible?