Family, Kids & Relationships

Study Shows Toddlers ‘Shape Their World’ By Starting and Controlling Conversations

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Who knew toddlers were such great conversation starters?

A recent study from Washington State University found that while parents might assume they’re the ones directing and instructing their young kids all day long, it turns out it’s children who actually get most conversations going. Tots are also more likely to determine the topics that drive those conversations. 

Despite plenty of evidence that girls at this age have a better command of language, “we found no difference in how boys and girls initiated conversation,” said Mark VanDam, an associate professor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, in a statement. Children began conversations with their parents most often, followed by mothers and then fathers.

“This is exciting, because kids are active participants in shaping their own world. They have the freedom to pick what they talk about and when,” VanDam said.

Exactly how this particular study was performed is as interesting as its results: Researchers miked 17 toddlers and sifted through 1,400 hours of day-long audio recordings with their parents to determine the findings. Thanks to automatic speech recognition technology, the researchers were able to develop what they call a natural laboratory. “This type of work would have been impossible a few decades ago,” VanDam said. 

Researchers are hoping this study provides a template of how to use high-tech methods of data collection to study how parents and children interact, which will make it easier to develop programs that could impact language delays, among other things.

“These results provide a template of how to use high-tech methods that are only very recently available to target new approaches to help moms and dads interact with their kids,” VanDam said. “We could use this information to develop new targeted therapies to help children that have language delay or behavioral issues and to improve the ways we interact with computers.”

While the research takes off some of the pressure off parents who feel the need to constantly direct children, it’s important to note that how parents respond to these conversation starters is critical. The more caregivers engage, the greater the impact on brain and language development. So go ahead and let them get the chatter started — just make sure you keep it going.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.