The new book “Parent Nation” argues for an overhaul of national priorities and family policy.
Suskind says her book offers a blueprint for a society that helps all families meet the needs of their children.
In the excerpt below, Suskind describes the basis of his work and how it has evolved since its origins.
My team and I have developed evidence-based strategies to show parents the importance of talking to babies and young children. These strategies have become the theme of TMW: Tune In, Talk More and Take Turns, or what we call the 3Ts. Our work is centered on the knowledge that rich conversation is what unlocks a child’s potential and the belief that parents and other loving caregivers hold the key during these early years. All adults, regardless of education, wealth, or occupation, can master the techniques essential to optimally building a child’s brain.
The idea, a direct approach to a complex problem, was intuitively appealing and a great success. It was the “quick fix” people were looking for and it took me to the nation’s capital, where I hosted the first Washington, DC conference on closing the word gap in 2013. Few Shortly after, in 2015, I wrote a book called Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, which explains what research has revealed about the role of early language exposure in children’s brain development. It was never just about word count; but the difference between the effects of a lot of language exposure and a little served as a memorable representation of the brain-building force of speech and interaction. The book has traveled the world. Everyone seemed to have understood his message. No matter the nuances of culture, vocabulary, or socioeconomic status, people had an almost instinctive understanding of language as the key to developing the brain to its maximum potential.
Yet the deeper I got into this new work, the more troubled I became. Or, to put it more honestly, the more I realized how naïve my ideas were, limited by my own comfortable life circumstances. I had thought that the answers lay in each parent’s actions and beliefs, knowledge and behavior. (I still believe these are essential!) And it follows that the goal should be to ensure, as I said in Thirty Million Words, that “all parents, everywhere, understand that a word spoken to a young child is not just a word but a building block for that child’s brain, nurturing a stable, empathetic and intelligent adult.To this end, we were testing early language programs in controlled trials randomized – the scientific gold standard for determining what works and what doesn’t. We have found that, indeed, our strategies work and the science behind them is sound. The programs we promote at TMW can – and often do – improve the lives of children.
But there was more than that. For our studies, we recruited mostly low-income families from all over Chicago and later from other parts of the country. Our research has followed children from their first day of life through kindergarten, and our programs have taken us into families’ homes and into their lives. I got to know people up close and over time. The parents’ enthusiasm was thrilling. They enthusiastically embraced the 3Ts, listening to their children, talking more as they went about their daily lives, and taking turns encouraging their children to join in the conversation. They wanted what we all want: to help their children get off to the best possible start. The problem was that the 3Ts only took the parents so far. Real life would prevail, again and again and again.
There was Randy, who was thrilled to discover that talking about his love of baseball (only Cubs, never White Sox!) could help his son learn math, but who had to work two jobs and most of the time had less thirty minutes to spend with her children. There was Sabrina, who gave up a well-paying job to care for her husband when he fell ill and whose family ended up spending more than two years in a homeless shelter, where she raised her two children, the youngest still a baby, in a stressful and chaotic environment. Most poignant of all was the story of Michael and Keyonna, whose son, Mikeyon, missed out on everything his father had to teach him for the first five years of his life because Michael spent that time in prison waiting to be tried for a crime he did not commit – without appealing or serving a sentence, mind you, just waiting for his case to be heard. Parenting does not happen in a vacuum. Neither could our research. Circumstances varied, but everywhere I looked I saw obstacles standing in the way of mothers and fathers. At TMW, we can share with parents the knowledge and skills that build their children’s brains; but our programs do not substantially change the daily lives of the parents who participate in them. The larger realities of a family’s situation—its work stresses, its economic stresses, and its mental health as well as the injustices and misfortune to which it is subjected—are just as important as the 3Ts for healthy brain development. Either they allow the power to build the brain of speech to occur, or if they limit opportunities to engage in the 3Ts, they stifle it like weeds stifle the growth of a garden. When I saw how difficult parenting is in a country that does so little to support parents’ ability to facilitate healthy brain development, I knew I had to learn more. I hoped I could do more.