Simply Tune-in

In her book Thirty Million Words Dr. Dana Suskind informs us that a child's brain grows 85% in the first three years of life, and that growth is completely dependent on the language environment in which the child is exposed to, which WE, as parents, provide (or not). In her book, she guides us to create the optimal language environment in "three simple steps", called the Three T's: tune-in, talk more and take turns. Lately, I have been making a very conscience effort to "tune-in" with my daughter, June, for the few hours we get to spend together each evening by putting my phone away, turning my thoughts off and engaging in her little world.

Suskind says that tuning-in to your child refers to parents simply following and responding to a child's lead. So, if June wants to play with the Tupperware, we play with the Tupperware. If she would rather play with the shampoo bottle in the bath than the awesome bath toys we have for her, then that's what we do. Suskind says that so often parents with the best of intentions (me!) try to get a child to do what they think will be interesting to the child, as opposed to tuning-in to what the child is interested in. She gives this example: Mom or dad, loving and well-intentioned, sits down on the floor, a favorite children's book in hand. Mom or dad pats the areas next to the child and smiles. But the child doesn't respond, continuing to build a tower with some blocks strewn on the floor. Mom or dad pats the carpet again. "Come on. Sit here. This is a really good book. Daddy (or mommy) is going to read it to you." Good, right? Loving mother, loving father, great book, interested parents, what more could a child want, right? Suskind continues that what is better is a mom and dad who are interested in what their child is doing, then joining in, as if the child had patted the carpet and said, "Come on, mom and dad, sit here, stacking blocks is really fun." (Suskind, p. 136). 

The other day, I was reminded of this excerpt from her book because I found myself in this exact same situation where I was sitting in June's room with her favorite peek-a-boo book in hand saying, "June, come here." "Look it's your favorite peek-a-boo book." "June." "Look." "Who says moooooo?" "Peek-a-boo!" "It's the cow." June. June?" She was wildly more interested in taking the books off her shelf, one at a time, and handing them to me to make a pile. I thought back to reading this scenario in Thirty Million Words, and then thought, "Ok Dr. Suskind, so you're saying, as long as I'm tuned-in then June is learning more by taking all 37 (I counted) books off her shelf one at a time, than she would be if I forced her to sit down and listen to me read all 37 of those books?" No way.

So, of course, I had to go back to Thirty Million Words, and find the justification for tuning-in to what the child is interested in, even if it means playing a game of "pile the books on the floor" instead of actually reading the books. And, sure enough, it was there... the science to back up the importance of tuning-in to their world. "When a parent plays with a child in the child's area of focus, brain development is enhanced because the brain does not have to use energy to switch to another arena, specifically one of less current interest. Children, whose executive function is still underdeveloped, stay focused only when they find an activity interesting. If there is no interest, then words, even the words of a really good story, float into the air, having little or no effect on that child's brain development." (p. 136). As an elementary school teacher, I can totally vouch for that. If a student is not interested in what I am teaching it's like their little brains are impervious to the words I am speaking. It happens all the time; I can give instructions for an independent activity as loudly, clearly and explicitly as possible. Then, follow-up by having the students repeat the instructions after me. Then, I will repeat the instructions again, for the third time, and send them on their merry ways. Sure enough, that one student, who I could tell wasn't paying attention, gets to his table, looks around for a while, like he just woke up from a nap or something, raises his hand and asks, "What are we doing?" If a child isn't interested, the words being spoken have little or no effect on their brain, and they are not learning. 

When I re-read this it made complete sense that children are naturally interested in exploring their environments; it's how they learn. And, our job is to simply enhance that experience, rather than trying to create a learning experience for them. But, tuning-in has a few guidelines. First, get on the child's level, whether that means getting on the floor with them while they play, or picking them up to watch the world from the parent's vantage point. (p. 137) Next, avoid technology. "Tuning in is deterred by digital distractions because devices are addicting and attention absorbing." (p. 137) I literally have to leave my phone in a different room so I don't get distracted by it. "Only when the child is a parent's primary focus will the necessary attention for optimum brain building occur." (p. 137) Last, in order to help the child learn while playing, Suskind recommends narrating what the child is doing with rich, caring language. So, while June and I play her favorite game of "pile the books on the floor" I would be narrating by saying, "Oh, look! Now you're handing me the yellow peek-a-boo book with the duck on the cover. Wow this one is heavy. I'm going to set it here on our pile. What book is June going to hand me next? I can't wait to see." And, Suskind assures us that "a child who receives consistent tuning-in is more inclined to stay engaged longer, to initiate communication, and ultimately, to learn more easily."