Do-gooders talking to babies

“The Talking Cure” is kind of a TED talk in the form of a New Yorker article. Some folks noticed a correlation between unsuccessful children and the fact that their parents hadn’t talked to them as much as the parents of successful children. Now an army of do-gooders are fanning out into the homes of the unsuccessful trying to encourage parents to talk more to their young children.

One thing that was interesting was the ratio of praise to correction:

Among the more affluent families studied by Hart and Risley, a higher proportion of the talk directed at children was affirming, which was defined to include not just compliments like “Good job!” but also responses in which parents repeat and build on a child’s comments: “Yes, it is a bunny! It’s a bunny eating a carrot!” In those families, the average child heard thirty-two affirmations and five prohibitions (“Stop that”; “That’s the wrong way!”) per hour—a ratio of six to one. For the kids in the working-class families, the ratio was twelve affirmatives to seven prohibitions, and in the welfare families it was five affirmatives to eleven prohibitions.

There does not seem to be any attempt to figure out to what extent these differences are a consequence of the children’s natural behavior. I spend a lot of time with young children of “the more affluent.” One thing that is a constant source of wonder to me is how little correction these children need. They generally aren’t breaking things in the house, writing on the walls, hitting each other, shouting or screaming, etc. The classic summary of all of the relevant literature, The Nurture Assumption by Judith Harris, concludes that their good behavior is unlikely to be a result of something special their parents are doing in the home. The children get credit for having a good personality. I don’t get credit for not yelling at them to shut up (a classic parenting strategy from the 1970s).


  1. Federico

    January 26, 2015 @ 1:06 pm


    Concerning the talking cure, I think Robert Feynman would use the words ‘Cargo Cult’.

  2. Jackie

    January 26, 2015 @ 1:35 pm


    You are probably right that the outcomes are more or less foreordained genetically anyway, but I must say I have seen heartbreaking examples of lower class parenting style on occasion in the subway, etc. Small innocent child: “Mama – why is the sky blue?”. Mother – “Shut yo’ mouth. I break yo’ ass, etc.”

  3. GermanL

    January 27, 2015 @ 7:35 pm


    Sometimes parents can take it too far. My twin 2.5 year old kids speak Russian and English at home. We live in Germany, so when they go to school, they will learn German (I am approaching B1 level in German myself). I also speak Spanish as my first language. My wife has encouraged me to introduce them to Spanish, but I’m thinking it’s too much. I would say English is our default language at the moment. Hopefully our kids don’t get too messed up and have trouble with grammar in the future (German grammar is a bit crazy).

  4. Sera dip

    January 28, 2015 @ 12:45 pm


    Unlikely that behavior is in the genetics. More likely that children learn by example from birth. The parents of “the more affluent” most likely behave in a way that sets an example for the children not to scream, break things, write on walls, or hit each other.

  5. Izzie L.

    January 29, 2015 @ 11:15 am


    Nature vs. nurture has been debated for centuries and the consensus appears to be that it’s a combination of both, but that genetics plays a large part. A child is not a tabula rasa upon which you can write any outcome (if you just comply with the social “science” fad of the month – talking endlessly to the child or whatever). Children adopted in infancy resemble their birth parents and sibling more in intelligence and other attributes than they resemble their adoptive parents and siblings, even if they are adopted at birth. All the interventions that have been tried to date (e.g. Headstart) have not been shown to have any long term impact on life outcomes. The usual response of true believers of any kind when their interventions (ever earlier preschool programs, prayer, exorcism, etc.) prove to be totally ineffective is that you just having been doing it right or trying hard enough, so you should redouble your efforts (and hire them to help you).

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