I see a lot of impoverished families in the Pediatric Emergency Department. At least a couple of times per week I see a bright-eyed, curious child who has the potential to become a success. The child smiles, plays, looks around curiously at all the new and interesting things. As my mom would say, “she has a light bulb inside!” Then I look over at the child’s mom- she is a teenager, harried, tired, dressed in a dirty t-shirt and sweat pants. The mom opens her mouth and out comes street slang and curses. I think: “What chance does this child have to get out of the cycle of poverty? Will she be trapped like the generations before her? Is this mom equipped to do what it takes to teach this girl better than she was taught?”
The science on breaking out of poverty is clear: words, reading, and education. The more words a child hears in infancy and toddler years, the more a child is read to, the better the child’s later reading skills and love of learning. A love of learning leads to school success, which leads to better jobs and a release from the poverty of previous generations. The famous pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. Ben Carson, wrote about his mom who could not read beyond the third grade level. Yet she would make her two boys read two library books each week and submit written reports to her. The Carson boys developed a love of learning which took them out of the Detroit ghetto, to college, and eventual success in business and medicine.
The start of a child’s road to success is words. Kids need to hear a lot of words, and a lot of different words. They need to hear conversations, be spoken to, and hear reading. How the words are said is important too. Positive talk helps kids grow to be future winners. Positive things to say: “You are smart. Good job! Thank you.” Saying negative things hurts a child’s chances to grow up smart, things like “Sit down! Shut up! Be still!” Many parents are scared that if they are not using tough, disciplinary talk, the child will grow up lazy and soft. However, children need time to wiggle, explore, and be loud. Negative talk can also be turned into positive talk: “Please sit down. Thank you for being quiet for a bit- mommy needs to hear this.” Again, the science is clear- successful adults heard four times as much positive talk as negative when they were kids.
Reading to a child is important. Parents should make the reading fun for their kids and themselves- using silly voices and animal noises, stopping to look at the pictures and talk about them, talking about what is happening in the book. As the child learns to read, a parent should let her take over the work of reading and read to the parent. Kids love to show off- they should have a chance to be proud of themselves and their new abilities.
Using positive words and reading to children is not always easy. Being patient and kind when a kid is acting badly is the hard work of parenting. Reading to kids when the parent is tired and just wants to drop in bed herself is hard work. However, this is the hard work that will bring a better life for a child. Ask Ben Carson’s mom. She worked two and three jobs at a time to support her boys, but it was the extra time she spent watching their reading that really paid off in the end.