Feeling Like the Dumb One

I went to a good public high school, but my senior year a nearby school in the district closed, and my school absorbed its students.

Their advanced students joined our honors classes, and two things were clear: 1. The kids were just as smart as us. 2. Their education — at a public school just a few miles away — had not been as rigorous.

One girl joined our English class, and in the first two weeks it was obvious she was crazy bright and crazy frustrated. One day, our teacher used the word symbolism, and this girl kind of lost it.

“We don’t know what that means!” she said. “You guys know a lot about things we’ve never learned.” I leaned over, and said, “We barely know this. They just started talking about it at the end of last year.”

But she shook her head and pressed her lips together. “I don’t think I belong in this class,” she said. “You do!,” I said. “You’re smart! You’re really smart.” And she was.

But the next day she dropped the class.


I’ve been thinking about this because I recently learned that lots of American kids start kindergarten with a huge disadvantage that has nothing to do with their intellect, and everything to do with a shared vocabulary.

By age four, American kids from high-income families have heard about 30 million more words than kids on welfare, and 15 million more than kids in working class families.

Kids on the lucky end of the word gap obviously have an easier time understanding teachers and making themselves understood, an easier time learning to read, and other benefits that give them a leg up — the perception of a higher IQ than their low-income counterparts. The advantages persist into high school and beyond.

I’ve seen how much vocabulary disparities affect high school students, seen adults who feel stupid when they don’t know what a word means in a business meeting. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be for a four year old.


Closing the Word Gap means a cultural shift toward investment in kids – and who’s against this, really? We need more early nutritional programs, support of family stability, and widespread access to early learning in preschools or at home.

China has made such a substantial investment in early childhood education that they should have more college graduates in 2030 than the total size of our workforce in the States.

Fortunately, the biggest impact we can have individually is completely free. We need to treat babies more like little people.

When we see babies or toddlers, we should be talking to them, making eye contact, and reading whenever we get a chance. It lights up their little brains, and makes everyone’s future a little shinier too.


In anticipation of the coming New Year, I made some parenting resolutions for myself. I’ve been exposed to a great deal of parenting research lately, and it turns out I’m finding new and creative ways to arrest my child’s potential. More eye contact! Less Mario!

Anyway, have a look:

Family Resolutions, 2014

If you’ve been doing anything to be a better parent, godparent, aunt or uncle, let us know in comments.

If you like this post, you might also like:
Too Small to Fail: Bedtime
Teaching My Kid to Light Stuff on Fire

This post is part of the Too Small to Fail initiative, sponsored by Next Generation and the Clinton Foundation. They’re working to close the Word Gap, and I’m on board. More info here.

19 thoughts on “Feeling Like the Dumb One

  1. So agreed! My brothers and I have all done well, and I credit it all to my parents. My mom and dad started reading to us the day we came home from the hospital. Yes, I typed that right. No baby talk, and they kept a running commentary up on everything as we took walks, drove around, etc.

    Talk to your kids!


  2. Spooky. As I’m spending the day writing about how much we need to treat small children like little people, and how America isn’t really acing this one.


  3. Agreed! I have been hearing about this a lot lately in Canada. I really didn’t know that just talking to my children would make such a difference. I did know about reading and singing and playing, but just talking–even while doing chores, it seems, can make such a difference.
    Thanks for highlighting this. I can also relate as a high school teacher. There I can see that those with strong parent support and a healthy upbringing consistently do well, even when they put in little effort. The other children–especially the aboriginal children–struggle. These struggles have their roots in a variety of problems–many of them systemic. However, I feel hope that some of these things could be solved with the most simple of solutions: Talk.


  4. My sister teaches in a school in a low income neighborhood. She remembers very clearly once giving her students a state mandated reading test. The children had to read a paragraph and then answer questions about it. The paragraph referred to “chimpanzees” while the questions talked about “chimps.” She remembers one child in particular getting really upset. This little boy had never heard either of these words and so he had no idea that “chimpanzees” and “chimps” were referring to the same word. He didn’t understand why they made him read something about one animal and then answer questions about a different animal. Breaks your heart.


  5. My friend told me that her children are required to read something before they engage in any technology. I tried it this summer: read for 20 minutes before TV/ipod/computer/whatev. They fought me for about 2.1 days then realized that reading was their ticket to screentime, and I’ve never heard a complaint since. We still do it on weekends. Thank you, Jill!


  6. @Meg Right? I remember traveling with Hank as a baby and being amazed at how much more people interacted with him when we were out of the country. So, I guess now there’s scientific proof we aren’t acing it. I’ll send you the PDF.


  7. @Angela Oh man, that is heartbreaking, and a perfect illustration. It’s funny how we make these profound cultural shifts so gradually, realizing seemingly basic things about child rearing.


  8. This this this, so much this. I am lucky enough to work with people who speak to the children we work with just like any other person and also value what they say in return as they would any other person. And I’m incredibly lucky to have grown up with a mother who spoke to me (honestly a little too much sometimes) like an adult from a very young age. It makes all the difference in the world. The most important thing? Tell kids the truth. There are almost always ways to tell kids what’s going on in ways that will understand and not scar them. “You’ll understand when you’re older” is an inaccurate and unfair answer to give. Anyway, thanks for this, I love it.


  9. Yes! We are lovers of words in our family, and I know it reflects in our children, and I know how fortunate we are that we have access to books, and used books, and library cards (and the money to pay the overdue fines to keep those library cards running – we are SO bad about that). I’d like to give a shout out to other opportunities to keep hands busy – even during screen time – crafting. The other night the TV was on AND my three children were all sitting in the family room – each at work on a craft – one was knitting with needles, one was using a peg loom, and one was using a knifty knitter. Motor skills, concentration, sensory experiences, the joy of producing something with your own two hands! While some resources are needed – the basic tools for many crafts are much less expensive than any electronic. We also include them in the kitchen a lot – math, measurement, estimation, reading instructions. I think the nail you hit on the head, Maggie, is the “every day-ness” of it, and incorporating learning as part of enjoying ordinary time together.


  10. I know a lot of people won’t like this, but no TV. Like AT ALL. When my daughter was young she used to watch Saturday morning cartoons, but then Saturdays got filled with other things and eventually we were paying for a cable subscription we never used, so we got rid of it. No one missed it at all.

    Additionally, we put time limits on electronics (computer, video games, playstation systems, whatever): 45 minutes max/day, with no implicit right to use the time (i.e., only if the stuff you have to get done, like homework or chores, has been completed). The 15 year old doesn’t have to count email time against her electronic time, as a privilege of being older.

    As I’m typing I realize that it sounds like my kids live a deprived life, but both are extremely intellectually curious voracious readers, very funny, creative writers, and musical dabblers. I firmly believe that if there is a vacuum in their time they will find a way to fill it and if screens are not constantly an option, they will look elsewhere.

    Take your kids out in nature and they will show you how amazing it is.

    And finally, pay attention to what your kids pay attention to, and support and encourage them in that thing rather than the thing you WANT them to be interested in.


  11. recently, after i’d told a friend that my 4yr had been deemed, by the pediatrician, as post-kindy coginitively, and i made a crack about high IQ on either side of the bio-equation, he pointed out that kiddo wouldn’t have gotten there w/out my and my partner’s running narration/commentary and willingness to explain things, regardless of IQ.

    We did the same thing with my now 14yr old , and she is definitely perceived as being smarter and/or more mature than she actually is due to her large vocabulary. And the 14 yr old was a late reader, not really getting it til she was almost 8, but she hasn’t stopped since!

    My partner and I are huge readers of books, magazines, daily paper, and online blogs, news, etc., so the example is there. The 4yr old seems to be on track to be reading by the end of kindy (at 5.5 yrs old), based on her interest and memorizing of stories now, but maybe not. Her older sister did a lot of that too.


  12. As a family therapist, this post makes my heart happy. We need to give children the very best chances right from the start. So, hopefully they avoid ever having to come see me! These are wonderful ideas for doing that. Thanks!


  13. Here’s another one – which might not be for everyone: we let our children bring books to the restaurant. We eat out more than once per week – the reality of our life. If there is a wait at the restaurant, or even a wait for the food – we allow our children to read. I’m sure it looks a little bit odd – a family of 5 sitting there, with three children with their noses in books, maybe not conversing much – but if you are at the restaurant as frequently as we are, and you have that time to sit, it turns out to be a good opportunity for them to do their reading! It also allows us to see what they’re reading, ask about it, etc.


  14. Yes! Talk to them, read to them, look them in the eye. If you’ve never read it, The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease is a great book on how the simple act of reading aloud to and with our children is a powerful tool for developing vocabulary, which is so much the basis of all learning. Your post is such a good example of how that works – thank you! I teach and promote the use of baby sign language with hearing children – a very early tool for helping develop vocabulary. And signing helps trains us as parents to really engage with our kids from an early age – because, well, they might just be about to make a sign, and we don’t want to miss it! Thanks, Maggie, for sharing this insight into the Word Gap. I wish we could create public reading opportunities, a la “lectores” who read to the cigar rollers in Cuba. Maybe start a trend of readers in grocery stores or something – somewhere everyone goes at some point. It’s all about a rich language environment. Lead on, Mighty Girl!


  15. My 1 year old was born with hearing impairment & wears aids – the most important thing we were told we could to do help her was TALK. All the time & about everything. Then the speech therapist met our 5 year old & was all, oh, you’ve got this covered. Yeah, we’re a chatty family.

    The other thing we learned going thru the hearing loss journey was that the key predictor for how well a child will do is the education level of their parents. The better educated the parent, the better the child with hearing loss will do. (I think that probably ties into the income disparity study from above as better educated fairly often translates into better off)


  16. I grew up in a family where English was a second language (maybe third?). And despite the fact that I have a Ph.D. in English literature, I still struggle with vocabulary. This comes up all the time when I am in meetings and lately I’ve been more conscious and vocal about it (we are exploring different ways that diverse cultural backgrounds influence our interactions). I have become more conscious of us this because of my daughter who amazes me every single day with her grasp of language and her large vocabulary. I don’t want to hinder her with my own shortcomings. You’ve given me some very useful tools. Thank you!


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