Over the course of several years a child who has been read A Fish out of Water dozens and dozens of times makes an observation. They say, “How come this boy can go by himself to the pet store, buy a fish and make such a disaster? Where are his parents?” Though this may seem like a humorous moment of childhood spontaneity, the reasoning, critical thinking, confidence and initiative to make such a statement, reflects the hard work and consideration that has gone into the child’s early education.
One of the main factors in getting to that stage of expression and critical thinking is the fact that the child has been engaged in verbal communication throughout their entire life. This is reflected in a Harvard Medical School study on the effects of early deprivation on neglected children in Romanian orphanages. The study found that infants under three years old who spent long periods of time in cribs with little to no interaction with adults or peers actually had lower IQ’s. During this critical time a child’s brain has what is described as a level of “plasticity,” a stage where it is most receptive to changing, growing and adapting to different stimuli. The study shows that forms of interaction, including reading, talking and even singing to a child are instrumental to the early development of their brain and depriving them of such stimuli could have a devastating effect on their development.
Though a child may not be able to speak at first it is important to talk to them because listening and observing their parents is the way that they learn to communicate.
Keeping in mind the impact that talking to and communicating with an infant has on their development, how a child is spoken to is equally important. In any given day there are many opportunities to talk to a new-born baby. Bursting into a room, proclaiming “I’M GOING TO PICK YOU UP,” and marching out with the child shows little sensitivity for their needs. A more considerate approach, when entering a room with a newborn in a crib, is to recognize that the new-born may not even know anyone is in the room with them until they can see them. With the understanding that they may not be able to turn their head yet, a good approach is for parents to greet them in a soft voice when they approach the child. Simple statements such as, “Hello, this is mom. I heard you.” Or “How are you?” “ I want to see if you need a fresh diaper” and “ How can I help you?” These simple statements and questions about things that are affecting them engage the child and familiarize them with the basics of communication.
In other instances parents can comment on things as they happen such as, “What you are hearing is the phone ringing.” These kinds of interactions, where the child is treated like a person (as opposed to a puppy or kitten), allow the child to participate in regular life. For this reason it is important to use proper language, full sentences and basic normal communication. A child will learn from observing everything about the person they are communicating with, from how they speak to their body language, facial expressions and even the tone or volume of their voice.
In turn a child will respond through the best means of communication that they have available, whether it be words, sounds or simply their own body language. Over time, they will begin to understand the other nuances of communication and speech, such as when to speak, when to stop and listen, what volume to use, word choice etc. Actually having person-to-person interaction with the child is the only way to refine these skills.
While a child is in front of the TV none of the above takes place. There is no participation or effort on the child’s part. They are just a receptor. Watching TV only takes time away from playing, exploring and problem solving which are fundamental for the normal development of the child’s brain during their first 3 years.
Reading books to infants is an ideal way to help the natural development of the child's brain. From their own day-to-day interactions, children will learn to draw comparisons and relate to things happening in books. In this way, they are learning to read, enjoying a story and even interacting with the material. It is, of course, important to emphasize that reading should be done as part of daily routines.
Repetition is part of this entire process of reading and communicating. For this reason it is very important to hold on to and revisit the same books several times if the child asks. While they may move to a more challenging level of reading, many times it is the familiarity of the stories that draws children back to the books they loved as infants.
The process of learning to read begins as early as when they are born and is not something that should be sped-up with flashcards or any other means when they are clearly not ready. Learning to talk and read is a valuable skill that children acquire throughout their entire life. It is not a trick. Having a child who can repeat simple words over and over to impress friends or relatives might be an ego boost for their parents, but it does nothing for the actual developmental health of the child.
As children go through the toddler years they should be invited to create and tell their own stories while the parents listen with full attention. This will give them the confidence that what they say is worth hearing.
Children who are more exposed to books and conversations will grow to have a natural inclination towards reading. They will have naturally acquired the patience, discipline and love for reading that is so necessary for them to excel in school.
Looking back at the child who asked, “How come this boy can go by himself to the pet store, buy a fish and make such a disaster? Where are his parents?” It is apparent that they were able to enjoy a story over and over, while processing the content, comparing their lives to that of the characters, formulate an intelligent question based on those comparisons and have the self-confidence to express their concern for the well being of boy. From this perspective we can recognize this as a valuable developmental milestone and not just a humorous childhood observation.