Conversation Starters…for Babies

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“So, how are things with you?” “How’s the fam?” “‘Wazup?”

These questions are typical conversation starters between adults. They are first serves in a casual game that invites a pleasant return interaction. They indicate we care about hearing what another person wishes to share. And as we make our way through each day conversing with others, our family’s or job site’s or community’s social fabric is gently woven together more tightly and extensively.

But how do we get from being babbling babies to active, conversant participants in society as caring friends, productive collaborators or good neighbors? Well, there are some truths to be shared about best practices in rearing children for social success in school and beyond. One such truth is that reading to children every day, combined with ensuing conversation, is a very best source for building social interaction because it nearly always includes advanced language and vocabulary.

There are many names for creating a rich social environment for small children–dialogic reading, conversational turn taking, serve and return. These all mean just talking with one another. Most particularly, they focus upon the leadership role that family members can play to ensure strong language development in infants and toddlers. For us, a particular conversation’s focus may be a shared experience that has captivated the attention of  the small child. But here’s the really powerful deal. The very best conversations are ones started by the child. A child may ask a simple question like “Wha da?” (What’s that?). This could be a request for the name of something or it could be a confession that they have no idea what is happening. Either way, it is the perfect opening for a caregiver to talk about whatever has captured Tiny’s attention.look-at-this

The likelihood that a small child will ask how many dogs are on the page or what the color of something is in an illustration is very low. Such questions from a child would reflect what they have heard from others. They don’t really care about the number of dogs in a page’s photo or  the color of a character’s dress. These are the let’s-get-you-ready-for-Kindergarten questions, and frankly, they are conversation killers. While answering these questions may please a parent, the required right answers take children nowhere they wish to be. Very small children have no interest in getting ready for Kindergarten. They just want what they want when they want it. However, early on they can learn that talking is a very good way to get whatever they desire.

If we really want to get children ready for life, including Kindergarten, we need to lead them to start conversations. This is typically the result of them making an observation like, “My grandma has a cat.” Or, them asking a question like, “What are you doing?” These are open-ended opportunities to get to know each other, or the world, better.

When small children ask a question, everything changes. Now they are starting conversations. Yes, once they start asking WHY? we are in for it…but, that’s a good thing.

Welcome to the world, kiddo!

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2 Responses to “Conversation Starters…for Babies”

  1. Nini White October 22, 2016 at 3:06 pm #

    Really appreciate your explanation about what kids are NOT interested in (numbers, color identification, etc.) as ‘conversation killers.’ UGH. Found the following UCLA confirmed your advice:
    Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles sought to determine the key factors that contribute to a child’s language development. Studying 275 families of young children (ages 0-4), they recorded the adult speech, child speech, and television within the child’s environment, and looked at the effect each of these had on the child’s language development. They found the following:
    * Back-and-forth conversation contributed the most to the child’s future language score (six times more so than adult speech alone).
    * Adult monologuing (one-sided conversation, such as reading a book to a child without the child’s participation) was more weakly linked to language development.
    * TV viewing has no effect on language development (neither positive nor negative).
    If you think about it, LISTENING (with all our senses) is a key factor in our development as nurturing adults in our children’s and our students’ lives.

    • Mark Condon October 23, 2016 at 11:20 am #

      Thank you Nini for adding more substance to my little piece. I particularly love the last assertion about the primacy of listening TO children on developing their sense of empowerment and on us as agents in providing them a safe and nurturing place for them to grow.