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To Give Your Baby the Gift of Gab, Invest in Thyself

If you’ve ever spent hours teaching your baby to sign “more” or felt overjoyed when Junior’s babbles finally become “mommy” or “daddy”, then you understand the importance of language. But there is another factor to your children’s early literacy: Your career, and your level of educational attainment.

When babies hit 18 months old, this is what parents – and Stanford researchers – are noticing: The beginning of a language gap between low-income children and more affluent ones. It’s subtle at first, then quickens like a snowball gathering snowflakes of socioeconomic variables.

Quicker by the 200 milliseconds when tested for verbally identifying objects, to be specific. That’s the data published in Developmental Science – and it’s among many studies highlighting the frightening early literacy gap between the well-to-do and the low-income.

Want to invest in your children? Look in the mirror too

Based on the flurry of policymakers, researchers, and early childhood education experts pushing early education overhauls, you’d think it was just about giving pint-sized Americans better education opportunities. Invest in the little ones, they say, so taxpayers can save on public spending (on prison, recidivism, welfare, and the like) later.

But that’s not the big picture. “Take care of yourself first before you can take care of others” applies perfectly. By pursuing an advanced degree or going back to school to finish what you started years ago, your education essentially helps reshape the family tree. That’s why stories about students who become the first in the family to graduate from college are so inspiring. Reversing a generational cycle requires immense sacrifice. And a paradigm shift.

Just as you can measure vocabulary, so too can you measure affluence. In this study, affluent households are those with a median income per capita of at least $69,000. By contrast, the median income per capita of low-income households was $23,900.

Naturally, the career you choose has a big impact on your child’s literacy.

Metrics: How occupation, household salary impacts linguistic attainment

Even though we live in an age where STEM is king, good communication skills are not optional. Read any software developer’s code or email inbox, and it becomes clear that words form the pillar of many killer apps and products. Bad spelling makes for buggy code, and bad communication with managers makes for doomed software launches.

And what of healthcare, the other fast-growing workhouse of the U.S. economy? Joke all you want about barely-legible doctors’ penmanship, but communication is also the bedrock of healthcare professionals’ careers. Just ask anyone who has misspelled a prescription drug like methylprednisone as methodone, or forgotten any of hundreds of Latin prefixes for countless medical conditions or anatomical parts.

That’s why the Stanford study is so critical. It’s not just so much that the lower income group had slower recall, it’s also about quantity of words. Vocabulary – which will pay off in spades when Junior takes his SAT exams, or when he needs to impress venture capitalists – was also a huge gap. The differences in the study were simply mind-blowing:

Over six months, high-income toddlers added more than 260 words, while the low-income tots learned 30 percent fewer words. By age three, these socioeconomic classes are world apart. Not only do high-income toddlers have more dollars in their parents’ accounts (and presumably in their 529 college savings plans), they have 30 million more words in their mental cache.

To put things into perspective, the King James Bible only has 774,746 words in comparison.

What is it about her parents’ money that predisposes a toddler to gather 30 million extra words?

It could be living a household that’s stuffed with Thomas the Train and The Velveteen Rabbit books, or having bilingual nannies (who also have or are paying for their degrees with paychecks signed by wealthy employers).

It could be that low-income parents, weary from holding multiple jobs to pay the rent, have little to say at the end of the day – or while running errands.

Or maybe it’s socioeconomic conditioning: Posh tiger moms chanting TOMATO and CELERY at the produce aisle, or reading Veggie Tales during bedtime.

Parents’ education define the why, how, and Tao of early literacy

The reasons are nuanced enough to deserve another in-depth study. But whatever the cause, the effect is clear: A literacy gap so huge that policymakers can no longer ignore it. President Obama has called for the federal government to match state money to provide preschool for all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. Last October, the National Governors Association urged all states to overhaul schools so that children can read proficiently by third grade.

But what about parents, who are our first teachers? They are part of the reform equation, too. That includes work-life balance, which relies on things like employer-reimbursed tuition, access to affordable childcare, reasonable commutes from work or home to campus, and getting home in time to read Goodnight Moon.

The variables are so staggering, it’s a house of cards. Too often, the cards fall.

That’s why America must consider the role of for-profits (which allow time-strapped parents quicker enrollment and graduation) as well as online courses (keyword: flexibility) in a national dialogue about early literacy. Because from breakfast to bath time, every child benefits from Mom or Dad’s race to the top.

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