Mother-child language researcher dies

Betty Hart, whose research showed the importance of mother-child communication in the early years, has died at 85 in Tucson, reports the New York Times.

“Rather than concede to the unmalleable forces of heredity, we decided that we would undertake research that would allow us to understand the disparate developmental trajectories we saw,” she and her former graduate supervisor, Todd R. Risley, wrote in 1995 in “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children,” a book about their findings, which were reported in 1992.

. . . “Simply in words heard, the average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour),” Drs. Hart and Risley wrote.

“By age 4, the average child in a welfare family might have 13 million fewer words of cumulative experience than the average child in a working-class family,” they added.

Educated mothers were much more likely to use an encouraging, warm tone with young children,  while welfare mothers were more likely to reprimand their children.

The Hart-Risley research has been very influential, yet I think we could do more to help poorly educated mothers improve their parenting styles. Early childhood education funding should be focused on very disadvantaged children who need social and emotional support and exposure to language.