Who is the most difficult person in your life?”
My pastor asked us to just be quiet for a minute and think about that. Sadly, I didn’t need the whole minute.
Do you know who I thought of instantly? One of my own kids. Awful.
Ok. Ok. In my defense it is summer. And this kid of mine has “nothing left to do.” And when this kid has nothing left to do, this kid does stupid things…or, as my wife more diplomatically puts it, he doesn’t make the best choices. (I’m sticking with “stupid things”.)
And then I do stupid things. I react too quickly. I punish without listening. I raise my voice. The cheese slides right off my crackers.
Surely I’m not the only one among us here, only halfway through summer, with a head full of regrets already.
So my pastor encouraged us to understand, empathize, consider their point of view and their feelings, make an effort to be kind…especially with our words.
And I thought about the work of researchers Todd Risley and Betty Hart. They compared the early childhoods of children on welfare to the children of “professionals” in Kansas City. Most importantly, they wanted to understand what exactly had the greatest impact on a child’s development. And whether that impact lasted into adulthood.
The biggest impression on children isn’t made by income, nutrition, or quality of education – as researchers had predicted. The most profound effect on a child’s development is made by words. The words of parents.
Children who grew up in “professional” homes heard 20,000,000 more words in the first three years of their lives than kids on welfare. The more words a child heard, the researchers discovered, the better developed the child’s mind. Specifically, a house full of words increased a child’s self-control, self-confidence, problem solving and proficiency at reading and writing. And these benefits lasted into adulthood.
But it’s not just the quantity of words that differed between neighborhoods, but the quality of them too. Children of professionals heard 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements in the first three years of life while children on welfare heard the opposite: 80,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements.
500,000 words of encouragement. That’s 456 good words each day. Words that will last a lifetime.