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The field of how infants and children develop is vast. Have you ever wondered how children’s attachment to their parents affects them later in life, or how, exactly, parents’ income affects their children’s brain? Here are some studies that shed light on the subject:

Children’s attachment to their parents at a young age increases the likelihood they’ll be independent later on.

University of Minnesota psychologists have been performing a study of low-income children for more than three decades. By examining how caregivers engaged with their children, starting in 1975, the researchers have been able to track the different social outcomes of those with secure versus anxious histories.

Infants and toddlers need a lot of attention. Sometimes it might seem a little excessive. But when they’re babbling at their parents, or crying, or repeatedly throwing their plate on the floor, they are communicating. And when caregivers ignore that communication, children tend to not build strong attachments with their caregivers and, eventually, self-efficacy (a belief in their own abilities).

“Attachment history was shown in the Minnesota study to be clearly related to the growth of self-reliance, the capacity for emotional regulation, and the emergence and course of social competence, among other things,” wrote one of the researchers, L. Alan Sroufe.

It shows the importance of picking up the plate, and talking to one’s children, even when they don’t understand the words. When they ask for attention, they are, in a way, asking about their worth.

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Talking to your baby is a powerful thing.

How powerful? It can influence IQ and performance in school.

Betty Hart and Todd Risley at the University of Kansas published a book in 1995 called, “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.” They grouped families with young children into three categories based on occupation — professional families, working class families and families on welfare — and then observed them for one hour each month for almost two and a half years.

After years of data analyzation, they realized just how great the disparity was. In professional families, children heard an average of 2,153 words per hour; children in working-class families heard an average of 1,251 words per hour; and children in welfare-recipient families heard an average of 616 words per hour. That means by age 4, a child from a family receiving welfare could have heard 32 million fewer words than a child from a professional family.

But would the vocabulary effect last over time? When the children were in third grade, the researchers studied their school performance. They found the children’s vocabulary levels at age 3 did predict their language skills at age 9-10.

It’s not silly to talk to a baby or toddler who can’t talk back with words you understand. “Look out the window! What do you see? See the birdie on the telephone pole? What kind of birdie is it? It’s a chick-a-dee!” the parent says, proudly. Because parentese matters.

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What you say to baby matters, too.

The study by Hart and Risley also showed a difference in the type of words used by each type of household.

The children in the professional families heard an average of 32 encouraging words and five prohibitions per hour, a ratio of 6 affirmatives to 1 discouragements. The average child in a working-class family heard 12 affirmatives and seven prohibitions per hour, a ratio of two encouragements to one discouragement. The average child in a family on welfare heard five affirmatives and 11 prohibitions per hour, a ratio of one encouragement to two discouragements.

Children need to put their toys away — and they need to be told that. But those sorts of sentiments shouldn’t be the only thing they hear. They also need to hear, “I like how you put your toys away so quickly!” Because that always happens, right?

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on issues of sexual...