Importance of talking to infants now on TV

July 31, 2014

Shown here in Season 1 of "Orange Is the New Black," the character Maria, an inmate at a correctional facility in upstate New York, is seen talking to her baby during visiting hours in the second season. Writers from the show worked with the "Too Small to Fail" initiative to include details about the research on the importance of talking to infants to spur their cognitive development.

The message that it’s critically important to later learning for parents and caregivers to speak, sing and read to young children has hit prime time.

Two popular TV shows, Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and ABC Family’s “The Fosters,” have recently featured characters talking about the cognitive gains that come from talking to children. Both characters are moms who have recently learned about what’s known as the “word gap” between children from low-income backgrounds and those from wealthier backgrounds.

This new spotlight on early childhood development in pop culture is no accident. Writers from both shows were approached by and worked with staff from the Too Small to Fail initiative, which is focused on spreading the message that talking to children in the early years is a key to future school success.

“As America’s preeminent storyteller, Hollywood can entertain (audiences) but can also educate them about social issues,” said Patti Miller, the director of Too Small to Fail for the Clinton Foundation.

Led by the Clinton Foundation and San Francisco-based Next Generation, which advocates for public policies that support early childhood, the initiative has several messaging strategies, including traditional public service announcements and a partnership with the Spanish-language TV network Univision.

Source: Betty Hart & Todd Risely, 1995

The Hart and Risely vocabulary study showed a large gap between the number of words heard per hour by children of professional parents and parents on welfare. Extrapolated out, researchers calculated a gap of more than 32 million words.

“Unfortunately, too many of our youngest children are not getting enough of that opportunity” to interact with their parents and caregivers, said Hillary Clinton during a recent visit to Oakland to promote the Talking is Teaching campaign, which is an offshoot of the larger Too Small to Fail initiative.

Research shows that children growing up in families on welfare hear 30 million fewer words than those growing up in professional families. Luckily, Clinton said, that’s a problem that can be solved for free if the message that it’s important to speak to infants – in any language, about anything – gets out to the wider public.

“We want parents and caregivers to feel that starting today, they can help (their children),” Clinton said.

And the former first lady, senator and secretary of state is willing to get that message to parents in whatever format speaks to them. Which is why she and her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, met with Hollywood writers and producers, first in November and then again in June, asking them to include the message in their shows. The results were seen as new seasons of those shows hit the airwaves.

In “Orange Is the New Black,” a show about a women’s prison in upstate New York, an incarcerated mom exhorts her taciturn partner to overcome his shyness and speak to their daughter.

“You have to talk to her, like, all the time,” Maria, the mom, tells him during visiting hours at the prison. “There’s all these studies that say if you don’t talk to the baby they end up f****d by the time they’re 5. Talk to her. Sing to her. I know you don’t like to talk, but you gotta do it for her.”

“We want parents and caregivers to feel that starting today, they can help (their children),” said Hillary Clinton.

In “The Fosters,” the mom-to-be is Lena Adams, an assistant principal at a charter school in a stable marriage with her longtime partner. She’s reading a book one night as the couple get ready for bed and comes across a description of the word gap.

“Basically, your entire ability to learn is wrapped up in how many words you hear in the first years of your life,” Adams tells her wife, Stef Foster.

“Makes sense,” Foster responds. “But with the two of us for moms, I don’t think our child is going to have anything to worry about.”

When asking writers to consider adding a particular message to their scripts, it’s important not to “beat them over the head” with it, said Greg Propper, a partner with Propper Daley, the social impact agency in Los Angeles that coordinated the Too Small to Fail team’s Hollywood outreach.

“All we ever ask of content creators is just to let us educate them on the issue,” Propper said. “We don’t pretend to be the creative ones. Hopefully we inspire them to figure out creative ways to reach their audience.”

Shows featuring families with infants or young children are ideal vehicles for this particular message, but there are countless ways to work the message into a script, Propper said. For example, two adult characters could get to the topic when talking about how they were raised, or a doctor or teacher character could pass along the information while interacting with a new parent.

“Orange Is the New Black” and “The Fosters” won’t be the last shows to feature the idea that it’s important to talk and sing to young children. Propper said he expects the message to make an appearance in other shows during the fall season, though he wouldn’t reveal which ones.

Harnessing the power of TV shows to do more than just entertain audiences is not a new idea, said Scot Guenter, an American studies professor at San Jose State University. Though not necessarily the result of an organized, outside campaign like Too Small to Fail, TV producers and writers have included moral and informational messages for their audiences going back to “Leave It to Beaver,” which aired in the late 1950s.

“Popular culture not only reflects what’s going on in society but it affects what’s going on in society,” Propper said,

From normalizing gay and lesbian relationships to introducing the idea of a designated driver after a night of drinking, TV shows have long used their characters to do more than just entertain their audiences, he said.

“The idea is that a really captivating storyline makes viewers lose track of time and see characters as beloved family members,” Propper said. Including public service-type messages in TV shows “is a particularly effective way to reach someone in a moment where they are suspending disbelief and receptive to new ideas,” he said.

“The idea is that a really captivating storyline makes viewers lose track of time and see characters as beloved family members,” Propper said. Including public service-type messages in TV shows “is a particularly effective way to reach someone in a moment where they are suspending disbelief and receptive to new ideas,” he said.

Studies have shown that such messages have the power to make a demonstrable difference in viewer behavior. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research on the effect of the MTV documentary-style show “16 and Pregnant” found that Google searches and Twitter messages about birth control and avoiding pregnancy increased among viewers immediately after new episodes aired. Researchers were also able to determine that the changed behavior “ultimately led to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births in the 18 months following (the show’s) introduction.”

“The finding that ‘16 and Pregnant’ had an impact suggests that MTV drew in teens who actually were at risk of teen childbearing and conveyed to them information that led them to change their behavior,” the report concluded. “Typically, the public concern addresses potential negative influences of media exposure, but this study finds it may have positive influences as well.”

Miller, with Too Small to Fail, hopes their campaign will create a similar positive influence.

“While it’s troubling that we have this word gap, the good news is that the solution is fairly straightforward and simple,” Miller said. “If parents spend time talking, reading and singing with young children, that can help close the gap.”

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