Are Words Enough?

Doing more to close the Million-Word Gap.

Are Words Enough?

Over the past year, there’s been a lot of talk about the “word gap,” the unequal number of words children of different economic backgrounds hear each day. We know that the linguistic divide represents an inequality that lasts into adulthood. Over and over again, we have cited the number of words as a key factor in children’s lifelong success, their ability to read, communicate thoughts, process information, etc. The disparity has always seemed quantifiable, something we could easily wrap our brains around as we strive to give children lots of words, the earlier the better.

However, as a mother of three children and a lifelong early childhood educator, the idea of filling the million word gap with endless adult-generated talk aimed at children always struck me as overly simplistic and even invasive. Emphasizing the quantity rather than quality of interaction presented an intrusion into the child’s inner life, almost undermining their right to make meaning and drive their learning.

During a recent Harvard symposium on The Leading Edge in Early Childhood Education to examine how to improve children’s early education--including closing the word gap--I got to hear from Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, professor of Psychology at Temple University and an expert on language development. She specifically addressed what kind of talk matters and why. She shared the following excerpt from a study called How Do Families Matter produced by The Foundation for Child Development in 2009:

The Eggplant Parable

A mom is at the supermarket with her young child who notices an eggplant. “Mommy, what’s that?” asks the child. The response is as follows:

Mother #1: Shushes her child and ignores the question.

Mother #2: “That’s an eggplant. We don’t eat it.”

Mother #3: “Oh, that’s an eggplant. It’s one of the few purple vegetables.” She picks it up, hands it to her son, and encourages him to put it on the scale. “Oh, look, it’s about two pounds!” she says. “And it’s $1.99 a pound, so that would cost just about $4. That’s a bit pricey, but you like veal parmesan, and eggplant parmesan is delicious too. You’ll love it. Let’s buy one, take it home, cut it open. We’ll make a dish together.”

Mother #3 is doing everything possible to fill the word gap, not simply in the number of words she provides, but also by sharing the child’s interest, creating language in a meaningful context, and providing the vocabulary and grammar reciprocally. She offers a layered response that enthusiastically expands the child’s world knowledge—providing a nuanced description of the object (purple, heavy, and expensive). She then reminds the child of past experiences: You like veal so you might like this. And then she follows up with what will happen next: We’ll buy it, cut it open and make it together. This is a deep interaction, an example of shared attention between two human beings.

Hirsch-Pasek’s research expands the conversation around the million word gap, and she provides six principles of engagement that we can all apply to help us behave more like Mother #3:

1. Children learn what they hear most

2. Children learn words for things and events that interest them

3. Interactive and responsive environments build language learning

4. Children learn best in meaningful contexts

5. Children need to hear diverse examples of words and language structures

6. Vocabulary and grammatical development are reciprocal processes

Doing things together such as cooking, making art, going to a museum, walking in the park, reading books and singing songs all provide meaningful language experiences within a loving context. Whether at home or in a high quality educational environment, children have a right to thoughtful language exchanges that build a sense of self, self-esteem, strong attachments to adults and friendships with children.

Renee Bock is a dedicated early childhood educator, who is currently the Educational Director at Explore+Discover, a social learning center in Manhattan that is committed to setting the standard for infant and toddler care and education. Renee has more than a decade of experience in the field and holds a Master’s in Early Childhood Education from Bank Street College in New York. She has three sons, Ariel (15), Raffi (14), and Shaya (12). She can be reached at

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After 4 kids, this is still the best baby gear item I’ve ever purchased

I wouldn't be swooning over the BABYBJÖRN bouncer after eight years and four kids if it didn't work.

I have four kids 8 and under, so you might expect that my house is teeming with baby gear and kid toys.

But it turns out that for me, the more kids I have, the more I simplify our stuff. At this point, I'm down to the absolute essentials, the gear that I can't live without and the toys my kids actually play with. And so when a mama-to-be asks me what things are worth registering for, there are only a few must-haves on my list.

The BABYBJÖRN bouncer seat is on the top of my list—totally worth it and an absolute must-have for any new mama.

In fact, since I first splurged on my first BABYBJÖRN bouncer eight years ago (it definitely felt like a splurge at the time, but the five star reviews were really compelling), the bouncer seat has become the most-used product in our house for baby's first year.

We've actually invested in a second one so that we didn't have to keep moving ours from the bedroom to the living room when we change locations.

BABYBJÖRN bouncer bliss

baby bjorn bouncer

The utility of the seat might seem counterintuitive—it has no mechanical parts, so your baby is instead gently bounced by her own movements. In a world where many baby products are touted for their ability to mechanically rock baby to sleep, I get that many moms might not find the "no-motion" bouncer that compelling. But it turns out that the seat is quite reactive to baby's little kicks, and it has helped my kids to learn how to self-soothe.


Lightweight + compact:

The BABYBJÖRN bouncer is super lightweight, and it also folds flat in a second. Because of those features, we've frequently stored it under the couch, in a suitcase or in the back of the car. It folds completely flat, which I love.

Entertainment zone:

Is the toy bar worth it? The toy bar is totally worth it. Not only is the toy bar adorable, but it's one of the first toys that my babies actually play with once they discover the world beyond my boobs. The toys spin and are close to eye level so they have frequently kept my baby entertained while I cook or take a quick shower.

Great style:

This is not a small detail to me–the BABYBJÖRN bouncer is seriously stylish. I am done with baby gear and toys that make my house look like a theme park. The elegant European design honestly just looks good in my living room and I appreciate that parents can enjoy it as much as baby.

It's adjustable:

With three height settings that let you prop baby up to be entertained, or lay back to rest, we get years of use. And the bouncer can actually be adjusted for bigger kids and used from newborn to toddler age. It's that good.

It just works:

I wouldn't be swooning over the BABYBJÖRN bouncer after eight years and four kids if it didn't work. But I have used the seat as a safe space to put baby while I've worked (I once rocked my baby in it with my foot while I reported on a breaking news story for the Washington Post), and as a cozy spot for my second child to lay while his big brother played nearby. It's held up for almost a decade with almost-constant use.

So for me, looking back on what I thought was a splurge eight years ago, was actually one of the best investments in baby gear I ever made.

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.


This is my one trick to get baby to sleep (and it always works!)

There's a reason why every mom tells you to buy a sound machine.

So in my defense, I grew up in Florida. As a child of the sunshine state, I knew I had to check for gators before sitting on the toilet, that cockroaches didn't just scurry, they actually flew, and at that point, the most popular and only sound machine I had ever heard of was the Miami Sound Machine.

I was raised on the notion that the rhythm was going to get me, not lull me into a peaceful slumber. Who knew?!

Well evidently science and, probably, Gloria Estefan knew, but I digress.

When my son was born, I just assumed the kid would know how to sleep. When I'm tired that's what I do, so why wouldn't this smaller more easily exhausted version of me not work the same way? Well, the simple and cinematic answer is, he is not in Kansas anymore.

Being in utero is like being in a warm, soothing and squishy spa. It's cozy, it's secure, it comes with its own soundtrack. Then one day the spa is gone. The space is bigger, brighter and the constant stream of music has come to an abrupt end. Your baby just needs a little time to acclimate and a little assist from continuous sound support.

My son, like most babies, was a restless and active sleeper. It didn't take much to jolt him from a sound sleep to crying like a banshee. I once microwaved a piece of pizza, and you would have thought I let 50 Rockettes into his room to perform a kick line.

I was literally walking on eggshells, tiptoeing around the house, watching the television with the closed caption on.

Like adults, babies have an internal clock. Unlike adults, babies haven't harnessed the ability to hit the snooze button on that internal clock. Lucky for babies they have a great Mama to hit the snooze button for them.

Enter the beloved by all—sound machines.

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A few years ago, while my wife's baby bump got bigger and my daddy reading list grew longer, I felt cautiously optimistic that this parenthood thing would, somehow, suddenly click one day. The baby would come, instincts would kick in, and the transition from established couple to a new family would be tiring but not baffling.

Boy was I wrong.

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