One of my earliest childhood memories was snuggling up to my mom on the couch on Sunday mornings and she would read the comics to me. It didn’t matter that I may not have understood the humor the cartoonist was presenting, because mom would explain what was going on in the pictures. I still remember bringing other materials to her, and saying, “Read me,” when the comics were finished.
As I got older, my parents bought a record player for me. Not so I could listen to the music of The Beatles or The Dave Clark Five (although that came a couple of years later), but so I could play a record that came with the book, “The Little Engine that Could.” The narrator of the story told me, before starting the story, that when I heard the train whistle, it was time to turn the page.
The spoken word is powerful. It’s how we’re immersed in communication. As an only child who lived with my parents and my grandmother, everyone had their sections of the newspaper as well as their favorite magazines to read, and I had my books with records when my elders needed to read about what was going on in the world.
Dare I say that doesn’t happen anymore.
When a six-year-old uses language that would make even the foulest-mouthed adult blush, one wonders where the child learned to talk like that. Today, there are five places – television, music, the Internet, their parents or guardians, and their friends. The interesting thing is that all those influences, except for the Internet, were around 50+ years ago. Perhaps today it’s the lack of parental involvement, and the propensity to allow television, music and the Internet to entertain the child. Unfortunately, it’s not simply “mindless” entertainment. Everything a child experiences from birth to age 6 is a learning experience, and affects the formation of the mind. Theta waves, as brain researchers have discovered, allow us to experience everything. There are no such things as “time wasters” for that age group. It’s only after that time that some type of switch gets flipped, and categorization begins, differences are recognized, patterns develop, and discipline is based on cognitized consequences rather than rash realities. It’s why pot handles are not left hanging over the edge of the stove, and why electrical outlets have those little plastic covers when kids are at that age.
My wife and I made it a point to read, sing to and with our kids, and although record players were no longer sources for read-along books, cassette tapes were.
As my time to do longitudinal research relative to academic performance has passed me by, I believe we would greatly benefit by a research study which starts when young parents have newborn children. If 50 sets of parents were selected, then the control group of 25 would be asked to do nothing out of the ordinary in raising their children, except to track their activities from the time they were born to the time their children graduate from high school. The test group of 25 new parents would also be asked to track their activities in raising their children, but would also be asked to sing to them every day while they’re being rocked to sleep as infants, and read to them once a day from the time they are able to focus their attention until the time they are 5 years old and enter kindergarten. I wonder which group would perform at a higher level academically. I’ll bet you can guess which one would even without performing the study.
A study of over 2600 students found that attention deficits begin when children are exposed to greater and greater amounts of television starting at about age 2 (Christakis, D.A., Zimmerman, F.J., DiGiuseppe, D.L., & McCarty, C.A. (2004). Early television exposure and subsequent attentional problems in children. Pediatrics, 113, 708-713.) When television programs like Sesame Street have shorter and shorter segments that demonstrate the sound and usage of a particular letter of the alphabet, then, two minutes later, show different ways to add 2 and 3, then, two minutes after that, teach the English and Spanish meaning of a particular word, it’s no wonder that when children enter the classroom, they have a difficult time focusing on one subject area for an extended amount of time.
So let’s attempt to lengthen that attention span. If you have young children, read to them. Sit next to them. Share your voice with them, and don’t just read, add some inflection, using various tones of voice for different characters in the book. Make the words on the printed page come alive for your children, so that they’ll be able to form their storyboards and characterizations in their minds. It can provide them with a lifetime love of reading, since a parent’s time is one of the most precious gifts a parent can give to their child.