I recently read Dr. Dana Suskin’s book, Thirty Million Words, a fantastic resource for early brain development as it pertains to language. I was immediately engaged in this topic, partly because I am striving to create the best learning environment for my one-year-old son, but also because this hits so close to the Suzuki method philosophy. It’s amazing how over the last half century, science is validating everything Dr. Suzuki observed in the natural world. One of Suzuki’s philosophical benchmarks is that children have an infinite amount of talent or ability, and we simply need to foster the environment in which learning and development can take place. From Ericsson to Gladwell, past studies have shown us the keys to success include environment, opportunity, and deliberate practice. Thirty Million Words reiterates the concept that much of intelligence and brain development occur simply from a child’s language environment in the first three years of life.
The research determined that children whose environments were rich in words, quantity and quality, could potentially hear thirty million more words by age three compared to that of children with less verbal contact in the first three years of life. This research discovered that the “word gap” was undeniably tied to socioeconomic backgrounds, where children born into low-income families heard thirty million less words than those born into upper-professional class families. This “word gap” is directly linked to the “achievement gap,” as those children that heard thirty million more words, with positive feedback and praise, tended to be far more successful growing into adulthood. The research concluded that intelligence and success could be increased by tuning into what your child is doing, talking more, and taking turns in conversation. These three steps encourage not only language acquisition, but also directly aid in developing executive function, literacy, critical thinking skills, emotional insight, creativity, imagination, and determination (Suskind 153). It was not simply that a child had better language skills from this rich environment, but all the elements that allow learning to occur were vastly more developed because of the abundant word environment.
In my short year and a half journey into motherhood, I think quite a bit about the kind of child I hope to raise and send out into the world. What qualities should I attempt to instill in my child that will help him be successful, especially in today’s society? Things are so different than they were in the 80s and 90s while I was growing up. It seems the parenting philosophy of praising every tiny detail of a child’s life, and caring only about self-esteem has somewhat backfired on my generation. As a result, we have been left with less resources and tools to deal with life when it gets tough, or simply when tasks become more challenging. For many children, studying in the Suzuki method is the first time that a child faces a truly difficult task and is required to overcome the challenge. So how will your child overcome these first obstacles studying music, and how does this translate into long-term success in life?
First, we must understand how to observe our children, and praise the appropriate things. This begins with Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” movement, a revolutionary idea that effort is the crucial factor in achievement, rather than intelligence being absolute. Failure is attributed to giving up, instead of a lack of ability. For this reason, we must always praise the effort of a child, rather than telling a child that she is smart. If a child is told, “You are really good in math. It must come naturally to you;” we transmit to the child the idea that math is a fixed ability, a gift that child is born with. In that simple statement, in an attempt to praise the child, we instantly devalue persistence, hard work, and the tenacity to overcome the next obstacle that lies in wait (Suskind 99). That child will be more likely to give up when she stumbles upon a math concept that is challenging because she believes that her intelligence is fixed. A child that understands that her brain is like any other muscle and can be grown, will be much more likely to work through challenges and succeed.
This idea of tenacity and determination is what we refer to as “grit.” It is this trait that inspires a child to work relentlessly towards a goal, in the face of any obstacle, and conquer it (Suskind 103). It is the belief that with effort, anything can be achieved. Imagine a world, filled with ultra “gritty” people. Just think of the amazing things that could be accomplished simply by utter force of will. Grit is definitely a quality that I want my child to have as he ventures into adulthood. In Suzuki music education, grit is needed from the very start, in small minuscule amounts. Think back to when your child mastered Twinkle; the repetitions, the hours of practice, all to make a beautiful tone and masterful staccato bow stroke. That wasn’t easy. There will be countless moments in practice, lessons, and group class that aren’t easy. But imagine your child, having worked through every challenge he faced, conquering it, feeling confident in his ability. That is a child that might have the tools to be truly successful in school and adulthood.
Environment is the key from the very start. We nurture our children with unconditional love, food, activities, and play. Let’s add in rich language to the mix, and of course music. All these pieces help create the environment that fosters learning and success. Focusing on a growth mindset, we can help our children believe that they are capable of extraordinary things. Remember that your words are important and they can tremendously shape your child’s life. When your child stumbles across those roadblocks, be the voice that tells them anything can be achieved if they work hard and never give up.
Instill in them the “grit” that will help them be forever successful!
Susukind, Dana. Thirty Million Words. New York: Dutton, 2015.