The homeschool versus public school debate revolves around the education of children typically only after the age of five. Ignoring what happens before a child is old enough to attend state schools ignores the reality that education begins at home, not at school.  A significant portion of a person’s intellectual capacity is determined in his or her first 36 months.  As such, parents cannot wait until children learn how to speak or until they are old enough to be shipped off to state schools to begin to foster their children’s intellectual development.  Fortunately for parents, developing a child’s intellectual capacity is simple; they only need to talk to their child, early and often.

In 2008, Harvard professor and innovation expert Clayton Christensen wrote Disrupting Class, focusing on how innovation can be used to transform education in America. Christensen felt so strongly about the importance of parents talking to their children that he deviated from the theme of his book and dedicated an entire chapter to this subject.

Much of the education gap between the rich and the poor upon entering school age is driven not by economic disparity, but by how much a child has been talked to by their parents.  As Christensen notes, “talkative,” college educated parents spoke 2,100 words per hour, on average, to their infants, while “welfare” parents spoke on average only 600 words per hour.  By 36 months of age the children of the talkative parents had heard their parents speak 48 million words to them, compared to the children of welfare parents who heard only 13 million words.  Christensen further explains why this difference is so remarkable. It is not that the kids of the talkative parents hear 3.7 times as many words as those of the welfare parents.  Instead, when kids are being engaged in conversation, even if they don’t understand it, they are developing the synapses between brain cells which improve children’s cognitive capacities.  Because each brain cell is connected to hundreds of other cells by as many as 10,000 synapses, the advantages of the extra 35 million words is tremendous to say the least, far more than just a 3.7 times advantage.

The difference in the number of spoken words can be attributed in part to the type of talking parents engage in with their children.  There is a difference between standard talking in which parents are giving orders such as “pick up your toys” or “wash your hands” and extra talk in which parents are engaging in face to face conversations with their children.  Such conversations are not merely baby talk, but fully adult conversations in which a child would be expected to respond to, if the child could speak. All parents talk to their children in standard ways, but it is talkative parents that engage in the more serious talk. It is those engaged interactions that stimulate the development of the synapses mentioned previously, something that cannot be replicated by sitting a child in front of the TV to watch Sesame Street.

The timing of parents talking to their kids is also important.  As Christensen states in his book, the most powerful words are spoken in the first 12 months of life, even though there is no visible evidence that children can understand what their parents are saying. Parents who delayed speaking to their children in a serious manner until the point at which their children were speaking (at about 12 months) found their children suffered from a persistent deficit in intellectual capacity relative to the children of talkative parents who were speaking to their children throughout the first year.

There is no college degree or teaching certification necessary to talk to your children early and often.  As with homeschooling from the ages of five and up, parents who take their children’s development into their own hands as opposed to waiting for professional educators will be the most successful.

Note: This essay was originally published by Antonio Buehler in 2011 on another blog. It has been copied here verbatim.