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Charlie Mitchell: Parents have power to ignite imagination, learning

 

 

OXFORD -- The Mississippi Department of Education already assigns letter grades -- "A" to "F" -- to public schools and school districts. Why not close the loop and give each parent a grade, too? Maybe require a bumper sticker, too? 

 

That would be radical, too radical, really. But the good news is that a mother or father slapped with an "F" could turn things around pretty quickly. 

 

How? 

 

Have conversations with their children. 

 

Really? 

 

Stanford University research says yes. 

 

Not only will the parenting grade rise, so will the income potential of the child or children. 

 

Just by conversing, early and often. 

 

The research at Stanford was designed to study generational poverty. It started about a half-century ago and, not surprisingly, detected a link between verbal skills and socioeconomic status. 

 

"For lots of reasons, there is generally less supportive talk to children in families living in poverty," said Anne Fernald, a Stanford associate professor of psychology whose findings are published in an academic journal, Developmental Science. 

 

Parents in poverty may have or may take less time to talk to their babies, be too stressed or preoccupied. 

 

It was not part of Fernald's research, but the same could apply to all parents, regardless of their bank accounts, if they are tugged away from their kiddies to respond to a constant stream of texts or to play the latest games on their tablet computers. Parking a kid to spend time on Facebook is not a good idea. 

 

Now to the "how" part of conversing with a child. 

 

First, barking orders, although often necessary and sometimes commendable, is not conversation. "Come here" and "stop that" don't count. 

 

Second, don't be intimidated. Frankly, a lot of parents are afraid to talk with their children about homework for fear of not being able to say who fought in the War of 1812 or have a clue how to determine the value of "X." 

 

That's OK because the conversation can be about anything. It doesn't have to be lesson-oriented; it doesn't have to have a point and the parent doesn't even need to know the answer. "Why do you think the sky is blue?" is a good question. So is, "Do you like pancakes or scrambled eggs more?" And then, "Why?" To get children to talk usually requires a closed-ended, specific question. "What did you learn at school today?" is, generally, a non-starter. 

 

A really good mom I knew asked her sons two questions every day. One was, "Who did something nice for you today?" The follow-up was, "What did you do that was nice for someone else?" 

 

An example of the other kind -- not so good -- is parents who say, "I send my kids to school and it's the teachers' job to teach them." 

 

Not so. Not so. Not so. 

 

Even the best teachers earn only a fraction of the communicative bond that exists between parent and child. And television? With deference to Big Bird, the potency of parental guidance is estimated at six times greater. Let's say it clearly: Putting a child in front of a TV is not being a parent; it's avoiding being a parent. 

 

Another excuse is lack of time. That doesn't wash, either. Parents who are with their children five, 10 or 30 minutes a day bathing or dressing or in the car can use that time and it will be a whole lot better than nothing. 

 

National Public Radio recently reported on two cities, Providence, R.I., and Chicago, where programs have been orchestrated to overcome the deficit of 30 million fewer words that children of poverty hear by their third birthdays. Their aim is to close the "word gap" between children who arrive for kindergarten verbally prepared and those who don't. 

 

But does it really take a program? 

 

It's sad to picture a mom with a cell phone to her hear plopping down a plate of food in front of a 2-year-old staring at a TV. It's sad to see a 3-year-old strapped in the safety seat of a car, staring out the window while dad drives along, listening to the radio. That's a lonely child, a deprived child, a child whose future is being limited. 

 

The cure -- the fix -- doesn't require legislation or a nickel of new funding. It's nice that scholars study these things, but it's also common sense. 

 

If parents would spend more time in conversation with their children -- especially their preschoolers -- those children, in turn, would be better students in school and more prosperous in life. 

 

 

 

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