Success

Want to raise successful kids? Harvard, MIT study says doing one thing at age 4 could make them happier and wealthier in life

Amy Aldrete | Twenty20

Every parent knows that raising a child can feel tantamount to a competitive sport. And while competitive parenting is widely condemned, we ultimately just want our children to live happy and successful lives.

Thanks to modern science, there are a number of effective — yet obvious — strategies to smart parenting. But last year, a group of researchers at MIT, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania found that one of the best things parents can do for their children is to have frequent back-and-forth exchanges with them.

The findings suggest that doing this at an early age (typically between ages 4 to 6) will help develop, foster and improve what is perhaps one of the most important skills that contribute to success in life: Communication.

What's more, a number of studies have supported the idea that children with stronger communication skills are more likely to have healthier relationships, longer marriages, higher self-esteem and overall satisfaction in life.

One study from Harvard even suggested that skilled communicators typically turn out to be great negotiators. In turn, they "recognize the importance of expanding the pie of value for all parties at the table. In the process, they claim more money for themselves."

The power of 'back-and-forth' talk

We talk to our kids all the time — both directly and indirectly. "Sit here." "Hurry, we're going to be late." "Great job!" "No, don't do that." "Alexa, read us a bedtime story." The secret, however, is to have back-and-forth conversations.

For the study, researchers evaluated 36 children using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify the differences in how the brain responds to different conversational styles.

They found that the Broca's area, a region of the brain that focuses on speech production and language processing, was much more active in children who engaged in more back-and-forth conversations. Children who had more activation in that region of the brain scored higher in tests of language, grammar and verbal reasoning skills.

"The really novel thing about our paper is that it provides the first evidence that family conversation at home is associated with brain development in children," John Gabrieli, the senior author of the study, told MIT News. "It's almost magical how parental conversation appears to influence the biological growth of the brain."

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Minding the (word) gap

Back in 1995, a landmark study found that children from higher-income families appeared to have much greater language and communication abilities, and it was thought to be correlated with the fact that those children were exposed to about 30 million more words during the first years of life, compared to children of lower-income families.

But findings from this recent study suggest that the "30 million word gap" isn't all it's cracked up to be.

"The conversational turn-taking seems like the thing that makes a difference, regardless of socioeconomic status," Gabrielli said. "Such turn-taking occurs more often in families from a higher socioeconomic status, but children coming from families with lesser income or parental education showed the same benefits from conversational turn-taking."

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Real talk

The point isn't to have deep philosophical conversations with your children, but to instead carry conversations that require back-and-froth dialogue.

It's not difficult to make that leap, and they'll benefit in significant ways in the long run; interactive conversations help improve communication skills as a whole, and that's a necessity for success in any future career. When it comes to your child's success, maybe talk isn't so cheap after all.

Tom Popomaronis is a commerce expert and proud Baltimore native. Currently, he is the Senior Director of Product Innovation at the Hawkins Group. His work has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company and The Washington Post. In 2014, he was named one of the "40 Under 40" by the Baltimore Business Journal. Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter @tpopomaronis.

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Amy Aldrete | Twenty20
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