That is essentially the premise behind a new social movement aimed at getting parents to talk more with their children. The New Yorker magazine had an article about the trend in its January 12, 2015 issue, by Margaret Talbot titled, The Talking Cure.
The idea is derived from studies that show, on average, that the more successful is the family, the more words the children hear in their rearing. And yes, it is only the quantity of words, not content, that has been documented. (Which immediately set me to wondering, what if a kid had an autistic parent who said only the word “river” thousands of times every day, would that help the kid get into Harvard?)
There were no outlandishly wealthy families studied, for whom the idea seems rather quaint, parents talking to their children. Do the obscenely wealthy even know their children’s names? Perhaps nannies talk to the children. Each sentence Warren Buffett uttered to his children when they were young probably cost him something like half a billion dollars over time, if it is imagined each one represented a foregone opportunity to apply his Midas touch to another stock or bond.
According to the article, the study upon which this new fad is founded was done in the 1980’s by two child psychologists at the University of Kansas, Betty Hart and Todd Risley. The looked at forty-two families, thirteen “professional” class families; ten middle class families; thirteen working class and six on welfare. They found that toddlers heard an average of 2,150 words per hour in the professional class families; 1,250 among the working class, and 620 among the welfare families.
What does this tell us? The researchers concluded that:
With few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies were growing and the higher the children’s I.Q. test scores at age 3 and later.”
Are there any fallacies in this line of reasoning? Of course. Correlation is not causation. To witness the simultaneous appearance of two phenomena does not mean that phenomenon A caused phenomenon B, or vice versa. The researchers obviously concluded that talking to children raises IQ’s. It could well be that causation points in the opposite direction, that a child with a high IQ is more quizzical and interested in conveying his thoughts through language, and in having others do the same.
What about the average IQ of the parents? Wouldn’t parents with high IQ’s be more likely to produce children with high IQ’s, just by dint of the genetic lottery being tilted thereby in the child’s favor?
Well, the social science academy would say no, because it still is part and parcel of the academy that genes don’t matter—that children’s minds are blank slates that can be shaped and formed to be anything the sociologist desires. In other words, sociology basically rejects the tenets of modern biology as applied to mankind, or at least to that particular part of him considered as his intellect. For the academy, intellect is not heritable.
The social science academy is terrified of the specter of genetic determinism, particularly its ugly eugenics connotation, so they have instead adopted environmental determinism, the notion that nothing matters except a child’s environment. Thus they condemn whole generations of children raised in ghettos by abusive or uncaring parents to endlessly repeating the cycle of misery until their environment can somehow magically change. But, of course, that’s the whole point, and why they reject the science that clearly shows that greater than fifty percent impact of outcomes are due simply to genetics and the rest to some other factor which is not the home environment. The social science academy needs people to believe that the mind is putty, wholly susceptible to shaping and forming by the environment, particularly the home and school environment, because the academy specializes in modifying environments, or at least in attempting to modify environments, through generous funding by political entities.
It was telling that one of the social workers Talbot highlighted for the article carried with her a wax model of a human brain, putty in her hands, no doubt.
Contrary evidence that talking to children bears on their capacity for success later on in life is ignored. Anne Fernald, a psychologist at Stanford, was quoted in the article as saying,
Some of the wealthiest families in our research had low word counts, possibly because they were on their gadgets all day. So you can see an intermingling at the extremes of rich and poor. Socioeconomic status is not destiny.
Exactly! And neither does talking or not to a child determine his fate. Yet Talbot seemed not to understand. Her own conclusion was despairingly parroted straight out of the Progressive handbook of the socio-political dogma that passes for understanding:
Though cultural factors may well explain why some low-income parents talk relatively little with their toddlers, the most obvious explanation is poverty itself.
Such a leap! Witnessing the phenomena of low-income parents not talking as much with their toddlers as higher-income parents, and on the basis of nothing more than correlation, blaming poverty. This is just bad logic.
The real beauty to blaming the environment (impoverished parents) for lower communicative interactions between parents and toddlers, and then guessing that this will yield a similarly impoverished child means that there is really no short-term way to check the results of interventions. Fund a program to get parents talking to kids and see what results accrue, other than just more talking, which isn’t a given in any event. But if the premise is correct, that it matters tremendously to the long-term success of a child how much he is talked to as a toddler, the results won’t be in for twenty or so years after the intervention. Or, to put it in terms that the Progressive social academy might better understand, the fraud of their premises won’t be revealed, if at all (as success is excruciatingly hard to measure) until several political funding cycles have passed.
Allow me to offer an anecdote in passing, explaining perhaps why I find the notion of environmental determination so distasteful. I was raised in abject poverty the first five or so years of my life. My mother was only sixteen and barely married when she had my older sister. I came around a year and a half later, when she was nineteen and had by then divorced. We lived in the inner city projects of Birmingham, Alabama, until she finally remarried. I’m quite sure that my mother rarely ever talked to me as a toddler, as she was always working. I don’t know how much the babysitter talked to me, but I know that I never learned to read until going to school for the first time, at almost six and half years old, in the first grade. I caught up quite quickly. By the end of the year, I was reading books without pictures. As evidence that there must’ve been something in my genes that made it possible to overcome my environment, twenty or so years later, when I went to take the Law School Admissions Test, a test of logic but also of literacy, I scored in the 93rd percentile, after having only gone to public schools and colleges my whole life.
The notion that environment is determinative is utterly abhorrent. Anyone with a lick of ability and drive who wishes to overcome their circumstances and stretch for a better life would be condemned to accept that they had a poor upbringing and could do nothing about it. That genes are at least partially determinative seems somewhat cruel, but it really isn’t. Everyone knows that some people win the genetic lottery and others don’t.
For example, nobody but a very few very genetically gifted athletes have the ability to play basketball in the NBA. Even fewer can aspire to “be like Mike”, i.e., like Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time. Michael Jordan wasn’t only athletically talented. He had loads of raw athletic talent, to be sure, but he also had drive and determination. He hated to lose. So he applied his talents to winning, to escaping the ghetto of losing. And he did it. He escaped, winning six NBA championships in a career voluntarily shortened a couple of years by his desire to try his hand at baseball. It was a marvel to behold. And it wouldn’t have happened had he believed the social science academy that since he was born to poverty, at home and initially on the court, that he was condemned to it forever.
To answer the question posed in the title, no, the children of garrulous parents don’t have a better shot at Harvard. But children who happen to win in the genetics sweepstakes for intelligence might have a shot at Harvard, if they make the most of their talents. And it won’t matter a whit how many words, or what type of words, the children who make it to Harvard heard in their infancy.