Dana Suskind has performed hundreds of cochlear implant surgeries during her medical career, but there’s another number for which she’s much better known.
“The title of my first book, Thirty Million Words, is going to be my epitaph, I’m sure,” said Suskind, a professor of surgery and pediatrics at UChicago Medicine.
According to an influential study by two University of Kansas researchers, children from the lowest-income households hear thirty million fewer words by the time they turn four than children in the highest-income households. In recent years the exact size of the early language gap has been widely debated (more on that later), but whatever the figure, Suskind wants to bring it closer to zero.
In her 2015 book, Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain—Tune In, Talk More, Take Turns, Suskind promoted a simple way for parents to improve children’s chances in life: conversation. Talking more with babies and toddlers is, in her view, the single most important thing parents can do to promote cognitive development. She devised an easy shorthand for how parents and other caregivers should engage with young children: the 3Ts. They should tune in (that is, notice what interests their children), talk more (narrate everyday activities using rich vocabulary), and take turns (treat the child as a conversation partner).
It made for an appealing argument, the kind of tidy solution that policy makers and media outlets like. Beginning in the 2010s, and especially after the release of her book, Suskind became a spokesperson for speech, giving frequent interviews and lectures about the 3Ts. At the same time, the research center she cofounded, the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health, was developing and testing new interventions to promote early language development.
But as the years went on, Suskind began to see that her tidy solution was less tidy than she had hoped.
“I had thought the answers lay in the actions and beliefs of individual parents, in their knowledge and behavior,” Suskind writes in her new book, Parent Nation: Unlocking Every Child’s Potential, Fulfilling Society’s Promise.
Conducting more research with parents in Chicago made clear that individual knowledge and behavior were not enough to surmount the obstacles many families faced. How do you tune in when you live in a homeless shelter? How do you talk more when you are incarcerated?
Parents were doing their best, but “real life would intrude, again and again and again,” Suskind writes. “The larger realities of a family’s circumstances—their work constraints, economic stresses, and mental health as well as the injustices and bad luck they are subject to—all matter as much as the 3Ts for healthy brain development.”
Those circumstances, she argues, stem from a systemic failure to support all parents (but especially low-income parents) in the developmentally crucial early years of their children’s lives. This, too, is a gap that needs closing.