How Children Benefit from Adult Conversations

We hear so much about the importance of talking and singing to babies – and how it aids in their brain development – but not as much is said about talking to children three years and up, even into the teenage years. Older children actually need as much direct adult communication as babies do, but for different reasons.

The brain is still forming and growing for many years after a child can speak, read, and write. Recent research shows that brain development (both the addition of and strengthening of connections between different areas of the brain) continues throughout our entire lives. Children in the preschool and elementary school years need to be exposed to advanced vocabulary, complex thinking, and logic and reasoning skills. One of the most important ways this can happen is through conversation with adults.

Researchers call this the “verbal bath”; the shower of language which occurs when children interact with adults in a safe and appropriate way. When children are soaked in language, through stories, conversations, and discussions, it helps them learn to reason, reflect, and respond to the world around them.

How does this kind of conversation arise? What does it look like? Chew on this quote from The Sibling Society by Robert Bly:

“Children need an elaborated language in order for brain development to occur. One way to achieve an elaborated language is through hours and hours of conversation with adults. Conversation means not only, ‘How was the game?’, but also slow, quiet talk in which the child gets a glimpse into the strange countryside of the grown-up’s brain, in which the grown-up says, ‘I always give money to a beggar, even though I don’t want to,’ or ‘The problem with the pirate is that he is lacking in empathy.'”

Unfortunately, today’s children don’t spend nearly as much time talking with adults as they used to. Families used to sit around the dinner table or the fireplace and have in-depth discussions. Studies show that children today spend far more time in front of the computer and television than they do in meaningful child-adult conversation.

Sometimes we mistake informational queries for conversation. For instance, “What would you like for dinner tonight?” is not meaningful conversation. Neither are directions, as in “Please pick up that piece of paper.” Additionally, the “verbal bath” is not a chance for adults to saddle kids with adult issues. Gossiping, complaining, worrying, and relationship problems should be kept away from young ears.

How can we, then, immerse kids in the “verbal bath”? Here are some suggestions:

* Fairy tales told extemporaneously
* Reading poetry aloud (everyone from Mother Goose to Shel Silverstein)
* Memorizing songs and poems through verbal repetition
* Telling family or community stories (oral history)
* Reading books aloud
* Reflective conversations
* Letting children re-tell favorite stories in their own words
* Time spent one-on-one with an adult in nature
* Group discussions using the Socratic method
* Reading programs like Junior Great Books, where books are discussed aloud
* Use of dialectic as a method for problem-solving and analysis
* Asking children open-ended questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer

What do all of these expressions of “rich language” have in common?

First of all, they are all auditory and verbal communication. Because there is no visual component, children’s brains are required to picture the concepts and ideas they’re discussing. This sort of cognitive exercise creates and strengthens the synapses in the brain, enabling the child to partake in discussions of increasing complexity.

Second, they are traditions that have stood the test of time in terms of human development; storytelling, oral history, the Socratic method, and dialectic go back for centuries. They are proven methods of increasing humankind’s abilities to observe and analyze the world around them.

A third thing that binds these traditions together: they are technology-free. Actually, technology usually brings this kind of reflective, deliberate communication to a screeching halt. In order to get the most from this language immersion, TVs, radios, computers, and cellphones need to be turned off. If conversation lapses, then silence is okay. Silent periods give kids and adults a chance to digest the information they’ve shared.

Age by age, here are a few good examples of rich conversation:

For 3-6 year olds:

* Discussion about the weather, seasons, holidays, and pets
* Simple storytelling, preferably without a book (make up a new story, or tell a well-known story and change the details as your memory allows)
* Questions about the child’s preferences: favorite books, foods, colors, and the like. Try to get to the ‘why’ behind the opinions
* Conversations about thoughts and feelings, at an age-appropriate level

For 6-9 year olds:

* Open-ended questions about nature, science, art, and music
* In-depth dialogue about books, magazines, and poems
* Sharing of opinions about morality and responsibility
* Brainstorming sessions to come up with ideas for writing, art, and science projects

For 9-12 year olds:

* Discussions that use the Socratic method to solve problems. This can require some preparation on the part of the teacher. One day I stumbled upon this example of using the Socratic method to teach math concepts; I was entranced.
* More sophisticated discussions of morality, including social responsibility and ethics
* Discussions of world events, both historic and current
* Informal debate, as children learn to defend varying points of view

The “verbal bath” must be deliberate

After researching this topic extensively, I came to the conclusion that immersing children in rich language needs to be a deliberate action on the part of the adult. Otherwise, in our overly-busy, technological world, we will never get around to actually having thoughtful discussions. But if we do become intentional about it, the children in our lives will flourish.