The Key to Smarter Kids: Talk to Them

Having discussions with your kids teaches them to become assertive advocates for themselves in school

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When it comes to children’s learning, are we focusing too much on schools—and not enough on parents?

“There is, quite rightly, a cacophonous debate on how to reform schools, open up colleges, and widen access to pre-K learning,” notes a new article, “Parenting, Politics, and Social Mobility,” published by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “But too little attention is paid to another divide affecting social mobility—the parenting gap.”

Given all the roiling debates about how America’s children should be taught, it may come as a surprise to learn that students spend less than 15% of their time in school. While there’s no doubt that school is important, a clutch of recent studies reminds us that parents are even more so. A study by researchers at North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California-Irvine, for example, finds that parental involvement—checking homework, attending school meetings and events, discussing school activities at home—has a more powerful influence on students’ academic performance than anything about the school the students attend.

(MORE: Why Parenting is More Important Than Schools)

Another study, published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, reports that the effort put forth by parents (reading stories aloud, meeting with teachers) has a bigger impact on their children’s educational achievement than the effort expended by either teachers or the students themselves. And a third study concludes that schools would have to increase their spending by more than $1,000 per pupil in order to achieve the same results that are gained with parental involvement (not likely in this stretched economic era).

So parents matter—a point made clear by decades of research showing that a major part of the academic advantage held by children from affluent families comes from the “concerted cultivation of children” as compared to the more laissez-faire style of parenting common in working-class families. But this research also reveals something else: that parents, of all backgrounds, don’t need to buy expensive educational toys or digital devices for their kids in order to give them an edge. They don’t need to chauffeur their offspring to enrichment classes or test-prep courses. What they need to do with their children is much simpler: talk.

(MORE: When Homework is a Waste of Time)

But not just any talk. Although well-known research by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley has shown that professional parents talk more to their children than less-affluent parents—a lot more, resulting in a 30 million “word gap” by the time children reach age three—more recent research is refining our sense of exactly what kinds of talk at home foster children’s success at school. For example, a study conducted by researchers at the UCLA School of Public Health and published in the journal Pediatrics found that two-way adult-child conversations were six times as potent in promoting language development as interludes in which the adult did all the talking. Engaging in this reciprocal back-and-forth gives children a chance to try out language for themselves, and also gives them the sense that their thoughts and opinions matter. As they grow older, this feeling helps middle- and upper-class kids develop into assertive advocates for their own interests, while working-class students tend to avoid asking for help or arguing their own case with teachers, according to research presented at American Sociological Association conference last year.

The content of parents’ conversations with kids matters, too. Children who hear talk about counting and numbers at home start school with much more extensive mathematical knowledge, report researchers from the University of Chicago—knowledge that predicts future achievement in the subject. Psychologist Susan Levine, who led the study on number words, has also found that the amount of talk young children hear about the spatial properties of the physical world—how big or small or round or sharp objects are—predicts kids’ problem-solving abilities as they prepare to enter kindergarten.

While the conversations parents have with their children change as kids grow older, the effect of these exchanges on academic achievement remains strong. And again, the way mothers and fathers talk to their middle-school students makes a difference. Research by Nancy Hill, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, finds that parents play an important role in what Hill calls “academic socialization”—setting expectations and making connections between current behavior and future goals (going to college, getting a good job).

(MORE: Is School Just for Getting a Good Job?)

Engaging in these sorts of conversations, Hill reports, has a greater impact on educational accomplishment than volunteering at a child’s school or going to PTA meetings, or even taking children to libraries and museums. When it comes to fostering students’ success, it seems, it’s not so much what parents do as what they say.

This article is from the Brilliant Report, a weekly newsletter written by Annie Murphy Paul.


Some parents talk  to their kids  all the time if you call yelling talking. According to Trayvon Martins parents they were always talking to him, did not do much good he ended up a punk thug and dead. so you never know. look at OJ he became a millionare playing football and  bad acting. He was a punk gang member first before the NFL in Oakland where he grew up. Then he became a murderer and got away with that ,but years later he end up in Prison where he belongs because he could not stop what he was a punk thug, According to his mommy he was talked to all the time and she swears she taught him to be a good boy. I guess it did not do any good talking to him. The moral , you never know with kids Jeffery Domer was a kid once too he grew up to eat kids, I am sure mommy talked to him too.


Thanks a lot for the article.   When it comes to talking to bilingual children, does it matter which language to use?  Would not talking in English slow down this learning process? 


@raysaif when it comes to bilingual do you me ebonics, like the girl from the trayvon martin case.? because if you are for her it would make no difference.


I’m a millennial. No children to report yet, but I have many friends who have rugrats of their own. One disturbing trend I have noticed is that parents are treating their children like Ronco Showtime Rotisserie ovens: “Set it and forget it.” For example, a friend of mine brought his son to our fantasy football draft. He stuck his toddler on the couch with an iPad and let him play games and watch videos until he was tired and cranky, at which point he took the toddler and put him to sleep in another room. There were probably a dozen words spoken to the child all night.

My wife has her degree in child growth and development, and when we decide to have children, we plan on raising them radically different than what I see with my peers. My wife wants to avoid prolonged exposure to any screen, be it an iPad, a TV, computer or smartphone. We want to keep our children entertained the ‘old fashioned’ way with toys, puzzles and activities. It’s funny to me that what I consider ‘radical’ is actually how it’s been done for… millennia. My wife works at a daycare and sees the full spectrum of children and parents, and combined with her textbook knowledge of young children, she sees a big difference between kids whose parents treat their kids like Showtime Ovens and the kids who have engaged parents. Involved parents tend to have more well-behaved children who are faster to learn and be amicable with their peers. It is also my wife’s opinion that the constant bombardment of games and videos being heaped on children via tablets, phones and TVs are the lead contributor to ADHD because the kids’ brains are being conditioned to expect everything to come at them at a rapid-fire pace. When it comes time to sit still and listen to a teacher in the classroom, a lecture cannot hold their attention because it doesn’t keep pace with Temple Run or Angry Birds.

That’s a long way to say this article seems absolutely correct to me. I may not be an expert on children myself, but it seems like it should be obvious to parents to stimulate their young mentally by talking to them. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case and we’re ending up with a generation of babies trained to relate to the world through the lens of an iPad. There absolutely needs to be more awareness around topics such as the one this article highlights.