In a famous series of studies conducted in the 1980s, the psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley gave parents a new variable to worry about: the number of words they speak to their children. According to Hart and Risley, the quantity of spoken language in a household is predictive of IQ scores, vocabulary size and overall academic success. The language gap even begins to explain socio-economic disparities in educational outcomes, as upper-class parents speak, on average, about 3.5 times more to their kids than their poorer peers. Hart and Risley referred to the lack of spoken words in poor households as "the early catastrophe."
In recent years, however, it’s become clear that it’s not just the amount of language that counts. Rather, researchers have found that some kinds of conversations are far more effective at promoting mental and emotional development than others. While all parents engage in roughly similar amounts of so-called “business talk” – these are interactions in which the parent is offering instructions, such as “Hold out your hands,” or “Stop whining!” – there is far more variation when it comes to what Hart and Risley called “language dancing,” or conversations in which the parent and child are engaged in a genuine dialogue. According to a 2009 study by researchers at the UCLA School of Public Health, parent-child dialogues were six times as effective in promoting the development of language skills as those in which the adult did all the talking.
So conversation is better than instruction; dialogues over monologues. But this only leads to the next practical question: What’s the best kind of conversation to have with children? If we only have a limited amount of “language dancing” time every day - my kids usually start negotiating for dessert roughly five minutes into dinner - then what should we choose to chat about? And this isn’t just a concern for precious helicopter parents. Rather, it’s a relevant topic for researchers trying to design interventions for at-risk children, as they attempt to give caregivers the tools to ensure successful development.
A new answer is emerging. According to a recent paper by the psychologists Karen Salmon and Elaine Reese, one of the best subjects of parent-child conversation is the past, or what they refer to as “elaborative reminiscing.” As evidence, Salmon and Reese cite a wide variety of studies, drawn from more than three decades of research on children between the ages of 18 months and 5 years, all of which converge on a similar theme: discussing our memories is an extremely effective way to promote cognitive and emotional growth. Maybe it’s a scene from our last family vacation, or an accounting of what happened at school that day, or that time I locked my keys in the car - the details of the memory don’t seem to matter that much. What does is that we remember together.
Here’s an example of the everyday reminiscing the scientists recommend:
Mother: “What was the first thing he [the barber] did?”
Child: “Bzzzz.” (running his hand over his head)
Mother: “He used the clippers, and I think you liked the clippers. And you know how I know? Because you were smiling.”
Child: “Because they were tickling.”
Mother: “They were tickling, is that how they felt? Did they feel scratchy?”
Mother: “And after the clippers, what did he use then?”
Child: “The spray.”
Mother: “Yes. Why did he use the spray?”
Mother: “He used the spray to tidy your hair. And I noticed that you closed your eyes, and I thought ‘Jesse’s feeling a little bit scared,’ but you didn’t move or cry and I thought you were being very brave.”
It’s such an ordinary conversation, but Salmon and Reese point out its many virtues. For one thing, the questions are leading the child through his recent haircut experience. He is learning how to remember, what it takes to unpack a scene, the mechanics of turning the past into a story. Over time, these skills play a huge role in language development, which is why children that engage in more elaborative reminiscing with their parents tend to have more advanced vocabularies, better early literacy scores and improved narrative skills. In fact, one study found that teaching low-income mothers to “reminisce in more elaborative ways” led to bigger improvements in narrative skills and story comprehension than an interactive book-reading program.
But talking about the past isn’t just about turning our kids into better storytellers. It’s also about boosting their emotional intelligence, teaching them how to handle those feelings they’d rather forget. In A Book About Love, I wrote about research showing that children raised in households that engage in the most shared recollection report higher levels of emotional well-being and a stronger sense of personal identity. The family unit also becomes stronger, as those children and parents who know more about the past also scored higher on a widely used measure of “reported family functioning.” Salmon and Reese expand on these findings, citing research showing that emotional reminiscing is linked to long-term improvements in the ability of children to regulate their negative emotions, handle difficult situations and identify the feelings of themselves and others.
Consider the haircut conversation above. Notice how the mother identifies the feelings felt by the child: enjoyment, tickling, fear. She suggests triggers for these emotions - the clippers, the water spray - and helps her son understand their fleeting nature. (Because the feelings are no longer present, they can be discussed calmly. That’s why talking about remembered emotions is often more useful than talking about emotions in the heat of the moment.) The virtue of such dialogues is that they teach children how to cope with their feelings, even when what they feel is fury and fear. As Salmon and Reese note, these are particularly important skills for mothers who have been exposed to adverse or traumatic experiences, such as drug abuse or domestic violence. Studies show that these at-risk parents are much less likely to incorporate “emotion words” when talking with their children. And when they do discuss their memories, Salmon and Reese write, they often “remain stuck in anger.” Their past isn’t past yet.
Perhaps this is another benefit of elaborative reminiscing. When we talk about our memories with loved ones, we translate the event into language, giving that swirl of emotion a narrative arc. (As the psychologist James Pennebaker has written, "Once it [a painful memory] is language based, people can better understand the experience and ultimately put it behind them.") And so the conversation becomes a moment of therapy, allowing us to make sense of what happened and move on.
It was just a haircut, but you were so brave.
Salmon, Karen, and Elaine Reese. "The Benefits of Reminiscing With Young Children." Current Directions in Psychological Science 25.4 (2016): 233-238.