Closing the ‘word gap’ — is it enough?

Home visitor reads a book with a mother and her 18-month-son in Providence, Rhode Island.

By the age of three, the children of educated, middle-class parents have heard millions more words — often encouraging, informative, vocabulary-building words — than the children of poorly educated, low-income parents, according to the Hart-Risley study.

Closing the “word gap” is the goal of various campaigns, including the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail initiative,  writes Amy Rothschild, a preschool teacher, in The Atlantic.

Providence, Rhode Island is trying to prepare every child for school by sending Providence Talks educators into homes to encourage parents to talk, sing and play with their children. 

But some — “social justice” folks — think focusing on closing the word gap ignores larger issues, such as poverty.

Pediatricians encourage reading and provide free children's books through Reach Out and Read.

Pediatricians encourage reading and provide free children’s books through Reach Out and Read.

“If the problem facing low-income children of color is simply a question of parents saying more words and longer words, it would be much easier to fix than poverty and access to education for adults,” said Oscar Barbarin, a child psychologist who chairs the African American Studies department at the University of Maryland. “It’d be much easier to fix than the sense of alienation that poor and ethnic minority groups feel from mainstream society.”

He thinks the “number one thing” that would help children is to “give parents a stable job with a livable wage.”

Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician who works with low-income families, is a big fan of Reach Out and Read, which gives children’s books to low-income parents and encourages family reading. However, “there’s so much a book and a pep talk from me can’t do,” she writes in the Huffington Post. “They can’t teach a parent to read. They can’t make it so that a parent is home at bedtime, instead of working the evening cleaning shift while an older sibling or neighbor watches the child. They can’t get rid of the toxic stress that pervades every family interaction.”

Helping stressed, low-income parents do a better job of parenting will not solve every problem. But I think it’s more effective than ignoring parents — or assuming they’re too stressed, ignorant and “toxic” to do any better — and trying to maximize small children’s time early childhood education programs. The stable, middle-class job for every parent is . . . not going to happen.

Let kids do ‘impossible’ assignment

Let your child tackle that “impossible” homework assignment, writes K.J. Dell’Antonia in the New York Times‘ Well blog.

Theodor Geisel

Theodor Geisel

Her two fourth graders were told to “prepare a five-minute speech from a biography, to be delivered, not read, from notes on index cards, in costume and in character and with at least one prop.”
Dell’Antonia assumed she’d have to drag them through it, but she and her husband were too busy to do more than “a little redirection to one child early on, a little last-minute glue-gun assistance to the other.”

Her son spoke about Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), while her daughter talked about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell

“Had I helped, the report would have been more about Dr. Blackwell and less about Ginger and Blackie, the horses she had during her childhood,” writes Dell’Antonia.

“It didn’t seem to matter. Their teacher didn’t want the best oral book reports. She wanted their best oral book reports.”

Her kids didn’t get the top grade, but they had the satisfaction of doing it themselves.

Taking the ‘self’ out of self-empowerment

We’ve Had 100 Years Of Progressive Education And The World’s Getting Worse, writes Jordan Shapiro, a fellow at Sesame Street Workshop’s Joan Ganz Clooney Center, in Forbes.  “A century of well-intentioned progressive trends in education may have cultivated a generation of entitled I-me-mine individualist ‘winners’,” he suggests.

Each wealthy kid who is taught to follow his/her passion, discover his/her true vocation, or find his/her authentic self, is also inadvertently learning that personal success is a kind of implicit manifest destiny.

Parenting norms differ by social class, writes Robert Putnam in Our Kids. “Well-educated parents aim to raise autonomous, independent, self-directed children with high self-esteem and the ability to make good choices, whereas less educated parents focus on discipline and obedience and conformity to pre-established rules.”

Reformers “try to spread the message of self-actualization more equitably,” writes Shapiro. They forget that “self-confidence and individual empowerment” aren’t neutral or equitable. “Winners necessarily require losers.”

Shapiro dreams of “new classroom rules, new district wide administrative systems, new school designs and new educational customs that will break the cycle of winners and losers, haves and have nots.”

We need to teach our children that the goal is not self-empowerment for the sake of the individual, but rather for the collective. They must learn not only how to identify and discover their unique gifts, but also how to offer them up in service to the rest of us.

Do winners require losers? If Johnny learns to read well, is that bad for Susie?

And teaching kids to serve the collective is . . . kind of creepy, right?

Raising a creative child — not a gifted sheep

To raise a creative child, parents need to back off, writes Adam Grant in the New York Times. A professor of management and psychology at Penn’s Wharton School, he’s the author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.

“Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new,” writes Grant. Tiger Moms and Lombardi Dads raise their prodigies to become “excellent sheep” who crave the approval of their parents and teachers.

“The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies, but rarely compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights.”

“Only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,” writes psychologist Ellen Winner.

Parents of highly creative children set few rules, instead stressing moral values, one study found.

When the psychologist Benjamin Bloom led a study of the early roots of world-class musicians, artists, athletes and scientists, he learned that their parents didn’t dream of raising superstar kids. . . . They responded to the intrinsic motivation of their children.

Nobel Prize-winning scientists aren’t single-minded, Grant writes. Compared to other scientists, they’re “22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.”

When toys talk, Mom doesn’t

Talking toys may be bad for babies and toddlers, writes Cory Turner on NPR. Parents talk less when toys talk more, according to a new study in JAMA Pediatrics. And young children need to interact with a human to learn language.

Children between 10 and 16 months old were fitted with microphones.

Books and traditional toys, such as blocks and a shape sorter, stimulated the most high-quality conversation, says Anna Sosa, a Northern Arizona University professor who ran the study.

When kids played with the electronic toys — a “talking farm,” a “baby cellphone” and a “baby laptop” — parents and children communicated less. “When there’s something else that’s doing some talking, the parents seem to be sitting on the sidelines and letting the toy talk for them and respond for them,” she says.

“Back-and-forth conversation” with a parent or caregiver is crucial to developing language, writes Aaron Loewenberg on Ed Central.

The parenting wisdom of Star Wars

“The Dark Side can be hard to resist,” writes my stepdaughter, Gina, in The Hidden Parenting Wisdom of Star Wars. There’s nothing like a fight between Her Highness and the Little Princess to make a mother long for her own personal Death Star.

The Force Awakens' Rey grew up without parents, supporting herself as a scavenger.

Star Wars new heroine, Rey, grew up without parents, supporting herself as a scavenger.

“We may not agree with our parents’ way of thinking, but there is always something to learn from the choices they made,” she writes. Even if Dad is Darth Vader.

The new Star Wars movie has more parenting lessons:

Don’t send your son to a boarding school run by Mark Hamill.

If your kid asks for your help, don’t say, “I’ll do anything.”

The best place to abandon a child is a desert planet.

The movie plot that was good for your parents will be good for you.

Teen suicide in Silicon Valley: Why?

I raised my daughter in Palo Alto. The public schools educated the children of high-tech engineers, entrepreneurs and Stanford professors. It was competitive — but also fun to put out the newspaper or compete in Mock Trial with so many smart kids.

In The Suicide Clusters at Palo Alto High Schools, Hanna Rosin tries to understand a series of suicides in 2009-10 and again in 2014-15.

Most of the kids who killed themselves stepped in front of a train.

For the most part, these students were doing well in school, had plenty of friends, seemed to be normal teens with normal parents. One girl had just gotten into the college of her dreams. A boy had just tried out for varsity basketball.

Adolescent dysfunction has a U-shaped curve, writes Rosin. Wealthy teens are doing as badly as poor teens, researchers say.

The rich middle- and high-school kids (Suniya) Luthar and her collaborators have studied show higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse on average than poor kids, and much higher rates than the national norm. They report clinically significant depression or anxiety or delinquent behaviors at a rate two to three times the national average.

Successful parents set high expectations for their children. High school students believe there’s one path to success — get into a “good” college — and little room for mistakes.

Many of the Palo Alto suicides were Chinese-American or had some Asian ancestry, writes Rosin. Was it Tiger Moms and Dads?

In addition to pressure to excel, “affluent kids felt remarkably isolated from their parents,” Luthar found. They got lots of parental attention — all that helicoptering — but didn’t feel close.

In the end, nothing really seems to explain why these adolescents ended their lives, concludes Rosin.

Nationwide, the adolescent suicide rate has “dropped dramatically since the 1990s,” perhaps because of better anti-depressants and suicide-prevention campaigns, she writes. But, in the past few years, teen suicide is on the rise again.

Helping the hidden achievers

U.S. schools are Failing Our Brightest Kids, write Checker Finn and Brandon Wright in a new book. “This failure of will, policy, and program is particularly devastating to high-ability youngsters from disadvantaged circumstances,” writes Finn.

51uqaeUJllL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_The book looks at how other countries support high achievers. In Asia, “plenty of poor parents — who may not be well educated themselves — strongly push their daughters and sons to succeed in school, get into selective high schools, and proceed to top universities and good jobs,” writes Finn.

Screening all children for ability — used in Western Australia and Singapore — is “far more effective at moving minority students into ‘gifted and talented’ programs than waiting for pushy parents,” writes Finn.

Gifted programs work especially well for low-income and minority students, research shows, but “are scarce in American education, especially in schools full of poor kids,” writes Finn. This is “devastating for able kids from disadvantaged circumstances and disorganized families.”

Educated, motivated parents can supplement their children’s learning, provide challenges and find the best the public system has to offer. It’s much harder for uneducated parents to help their kids go beyond what’s offered in school.

When poor parents get more money . . . 

Giving more money to low-income parents improves their children’s personalities and prospects, concludes a study in North Carolina.

Four years into the Great Smoky Mountains Study of Youth, the families of roughly a quarter of the children — all Cherokees — started getting an extra $4,000 a year per adult from a new casino. The money raised household incomes by almost 20 percent on average.

An income boost from a new casino helped low-income Cherokee parents and their children.  Photo: David Oppenheimer, Performance Impressions

An income boost from a new casino helped low-income Cherokee parents and their children. Photo: David Oppenheimer, Performance Impressions

With extra money coming in, parents reported less stress, less drinking and better parent-child relationships, according to a long-term follow-up. They were as likely to work, but spent more time supervising their children.

Children had fewer behavioral and emotional disorders, the study found. The money appeared to boost children’s conscientiousness and agreeableness, reports the Washington Post.

“There are very powerful correlations between conscientiousness and agreeableness and the ability to hold a job, to maintain a steady relationship,” said Emilia Simeonova, a Johns Hopkins professor and one of the paper’s co-authors. “The two allow for people to succeed socially and professionally.”

Children with the most personality problems improved the most.

Prince Elsa

Caiden tries on his Elsa costume

Caiden tries on his Elsa costume

A three-year-old Virginia boy will dress as Princess Elsa from Frozen for Halloween, his father posted on Facebook.

“He wants to be Elsa,” wrote Paul Henson of his son, Caiden. “He also wants me to be Anna. Game on.”

“Halloween is about children pretending to be their favorite characters,” Henson wrote. “Just so happens, this week his is a princess.”

Nobody cares if a girl wants to be Batman, but a boy in a princess costume is a bit startling. If I were Dad, I’d hold out for Olaf rather than Anna.

Was the father wrong — or just unwise — to put the photo online?