baby talking
Credit: Alexandra Grablewski

Talking to your kids is so important, especially when they're young. Asking them open-ended questions, instead of saying a basic "yes" or "no," will open up the doors to good conversation. But you don't have to wait until your kids are in grade school to start chatting. Respond to your baby when she babbles. Speech and language skills develop at a rapid fire pace during an infant's first three years of life, and babies develop best when exposed to a variety of sounds. In fact, your little one can recognize the basic sounds of their native language by the time he's 6-months-old. recently published a story about the Thirty Million Words Project, a trial project started by Dana Suskind, a pediatric surgeon who performs cochlear implant operations on hearing-impaired children at the University of Chicago Medicine. She created the Thirty Million Words Project to support low-income families after noticing a trend in her patients' recovery six years ago: children from affluent families chattered away after surgery while those from low-income families struggled. As part of the trial, pediatric hearing specialists visit the homes of low-income mothers every week in Chicago's South Side. A small electronic device is attached to the shirt of a participating child to record the number of words that are heard and spoken (not including TV sounds), plus the amount of back-and-forth conversation between her and her mother. Suskind's staff then work with the mothers on ways they can communicate effectively with their children, reduce the amount of TV time, and increase the amount of reading, which helps build vocabulary.

Dana Suskind's admirable crusade made me think about my own childhood conversations with my parents. My mom cooked almost daily, and we sat around the dinner table and laughed about what happened at school that day. Like the Thirty Million Words Project curriculum, my parents avoided directives (or simple, direct commands), and encouraged my brother Scott and me to express ourselves. I have vivid memories of Scott shushing me to stop interrupting at the table. Unlike many parents in my neighborhood, my dad regulated my brother's Madden NFL video game obsession because he was afraid my brother wouldn't be able to interact properly with his peers. While my brother turned out fine, his friends often spoke and acted like they lived in a video game.

So the next time your babe points to a box of Cheerios in the supermarket, engage in some activities with her. Even if your conversation doesn't make sense, you're still building the foundation of her vocabulary, which will only continue to expand as she grows. And before you know it, she'll be starting preschool, so all of that talking, reading, and interacting will give her a head start in the classroom.