32 million fewer words – a reprise from nine years ago

While reading David Brooks’ excellent book called “The Social Animal,” I was alerted to a key result of classic study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley of the University of Kansas. One of the conclusions of the study is by the age of four, children raised in poor families have heard 32 million fewer words than those raised in professional family households. Breaking this down to an hourly basis, children of poor families hear on average 178 utterances of words per hour as compared to 487 words per hour in a professional family home.

And, it is not just what they hear, it is the emotional tone. There tended to be far more encouraging words than discouraging words in the professional home setting. Translating this to today’s time, there is a greater propensity to see single head of household families in impoverished families, so with one less adult and with the greater stress of earning a paycheck, doing housework and raising children lends itself to fewer conversations to hear those missing words.

In my volunteer work with homeless families and tutoring underprivileged children, I witness this first hand. I see kids who are having to overcome more obstacles than the very difficult one of coming from a homeless or impoverished household. They are starting school even further behind than the other children and will have to work hard to catch up. Just using the tutoring example, the two 5th graders I tutored were smart children, they just needed more time, targeted explanation and encouragement. The encouragement is as or more important than the first two needs.

In this same book, Mr. Brooks introduced me to a Greek term called “thumos.” We apparently don’t have an identical match in our language, but the word explains a lot of what we all need, but especially children. Thumos is the desire for recognition and union. People want to be recognized for their contributions, but through such recognition they want to have a sense of belonging. Translating this to the 5th graders, the children reacted well to the recognition of their efforts and especially the successes. When they “got it” it was like giving them the keys to the kingdom. It truly exhilarated me as much as it did them. To see their faces light up at the moments of clarity was truly joyous. High fives and fist bumps seemed to be insufficient to celebrate the moments.

I mention the tutoring as I see the resolution to this effort as “taking a village to raise a child.” This African proverb is very much on point, as parents, teachers and counselors all need our support to help these children climb their individual ladders out of poverty. Why is this important for everyone? Education is probably the greatest challenge for our country as we have fallen asleep at the switch and will not be able to compete as well in the future. I do not have any statistics for what I am about to state, but I believe our best can compete with others’ best students. I think other countries have caught up and made this echelon highly competitive. Yet, when you get beneath this small sliver of talent, I think other countries are kicking our hind end all over the place.

The jobs of the future are not the jobs of the past. Even manufacturing jobs and high skilled blue-collar jobs require an understanding of technology that may not have been required to the same extent before. If our children are not educated we will continue to be left behind. There are too many examples of where the United States is not in the calculus of whether to invest in a facility, but the one I like to use, is Mercedes had to dumb down their manuals on how to build their car for the plant they built in Alabama. They had to use more pictures than words. If we cannot offer an employer a capable workforce, they will find it elsewhere and they do.

So, what do we about finding those 32 million words? And, what do we do from that point forward? In this age of budget cuts, which are totally understandable, we have to be zealous in defending educational investment. We have to invest in pre-school programs to help kids get off to a better start. The “Smart Start” and “More Before Four” programs do pay dividends and we need to find more ways to reach kids. And, we need to invest in our teachers – we need more and higher quality of teachers, but we need to give them the freedom to tailor their teaching.

We need to continue the focus on providing resources to parents through the various “Parent Universities.” To my earlier example, we need more volunteers to help tutor, mentor and baby sit while the parents attend self-education or teacher conferences, etc. In my work with helping homeless families, the significant majority of whom are employed, I come across a contingent that cannot be swayed from their belief that all homeless people are bums and addicts. I have argued until I am blue in the face to dissuade them from this erroneous belief, but the one area I do get some nods of approval, are to say let’s set aside the parent(s) and focus on the kids. They did not choose to be homeless. If we help them, we can break the cycle of homelessness. Quoting a forward-thinking minister, he said “we have no idea of the untapped intellectual capital that may reside in these kids in poverty.”

So, spending in the area of helping children is not only the right thing to do, it is the smartest investment we could possibly make. I need only look at the second prize winner in a recent Intel science project who was a former homeless child. Yet, we also need to spend money on organizations like “Planned Parenthood.” This organization has become a pawn in an idiotic political game. As an Independent voter, this pariah status placed on such an important organization makes me ill. There are numerous studies that show causal relationships between family size and poverty in the US and abroad. In the work on homeless families I do, I tend to see larger families than in non-poverty settings. I place a lot of criticism on the churches for this. Birth control is used by many women and men, but it is not as available or universally understood as needed in all segments of our population.

One of my old colleagues who is an African-American woman told me how frustrated she was at her minister and church leaders. She said the teenage kids in her congregation are so misinformed about pregnancy and STD risk. As an example, some told her they heard you could not get pregnant if you had intercourse standing up! When she went to her minister to see if they could offer some guidance she was scoffed at.  Abstinence is the only thing they will teach. Well, as a 53-year-old let me state what everyone seems to know but the church leadership – kids are going to experiment and have sex. You can preach all you want, but it will not stop that train. So, we must embrace planned parenthood and the use of birth control. And, to me what better place to teach than in church. In many respects, I think some ministers and church leaders are misusing their authority to not be forthcoming with these kids. Please note through all of this discussion, I did not use the word abortion; I see that as its own issue with its own debate. I am speaking of birth control which is used by well over 90% of Catholic women, a fact the Catholic church tends to overlook.

You probably did not expect a discussion on education to include planned parenthood and birth control. Yet, I see them linked with the causal relationship I noted above between poverty and family size. Having an unfettered number of children, will put the family and children at risk. I love children, but with the cost of raising a child the way it is, I don’t think I could afford a fourth child. Yet, my wife and I have access to birth control and governed our family size to a manageable level. We would have loved a fourth child, but we have the family size we want. I think many church goers would say the same thing.

However, I would prefer to end on a more targeted note and that is the volunteerism. I described the need for the help, but also the joy to the giver. The gift of your time is immeasurable to those in need, but it will lift you up as well. At our agency that helps homeless families, where we do not permit the proselytizing to those in need, our executive director likes to say “who is witnessing to whom?” Our volunteers get as much out of the experience that the families do. The families are witnessing to the givers. So, find some way to give back. It will be a fulfilling experience. Match your passions with the needs in the community. My wife likes to say on her involvement “I am giving these kids a soft place to land.” Let’s all provide these soft places to land and help find the missing words in the children’s lives. You may even find a few words for yourself.

What a real hero looks like

I have written before about this hero primarily for her book gifting program for young kids, which is now an international program called “Imagination Library” (see second link below). Her name is Dolly Parton. I heard she could write songs and sing, as well. Yet, Parton just received some new acclaim for helping fight COVID-19.

In an article in The Hill by Judy Kurtz (see first link below) called “Dolly Parton among donors behind Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine,” her efforts are revealed. Here are a few paragraphs from the article.

“Dolly Parton can add another achievement to her résumé: helping to fund research for Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine.

The ‘9 to 5’ singer was one of several donors listed Monday as part of the announcement that Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine candidate was 94.5 percent effective in an interim analysis. The ‘Dolly Parton COVID-19 Research Fund’ was named as a supporter in the footnotes of a New England Journal of Medicine report.

Parton, 74, announced back in April that she was giving $1 million to researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center toward finding a vaccine to fight against COVID-19.

In an April Instagram post announcing her contribution, the Grammy Award winner said she was donating in honor of her longtime friend, Dr. Naji Abumrad, a researcher at Vanderbilt who informed her ‘that they were making some exciting advancements towards research of the coronavirus for a cure.'”

Parton will be remembered many years from now for her Imagination Library where 147 million books have been provided to young children. Currently, there are 1.7 million children signed up for the program. Yet, seeing her do things like the vaccine funding adds to her legacy.

Seeing her interviewed on multiple occasions, the depth of her kindness, integrity, and approachability is heart warming. Her ability to laugh at herself (both the stage personality and at home one) reveals a very smart woman that disarms people. She does not need to solicit attention for her good deeds, it just spreads.

Well done, Ms. Parton. You are a credit to the human race. Thank you for your music and big heart.

https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/dolly-parton-among-donors-behind-moderna-s-coronavirus-vaccine/ar-BB1b6aIj?ocid=msedgdhp

Where the crawdads sing – a terrific page turner

A few weeks ago, I asked my wife if I would enjoy Delia Owens novel “Where the crawdads sing.” I had given it to her for Christmas a few years ago and was looking for a good fiction read. I had bought it for her as it was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and recommended by Reese’s Book Club (that is Reese Witherspoon). She said I would and she was correct.

For those who have read the book, I look forward to your comments below. If you have not, please avoid the comments, as my wife did a great job of not telling me things I did not know yet as I read. Plus, it won’t take you long to read, as the story, main character, and setting are very intriguing. I will not give anything away here.

Owens does a great job of toggling between two time periods, one that ages with Kya, the main character, and the other one set in 1969, when a body is discovered beneath an abandoned Fire Tower on a coastal region of North Carolina. We meet Kya in 1952 when she is only six and her mother leaves her family to get away from an abusive, drinking husband. As this occurs very early in the book, her older siblings also leave as they experienced verbal and physical abuse.

They lived in the marsh of this coastal area and we begin to learn about the differences between marshes, swamps and inlets, through this girl’s eyes. This “Marsh Girl,” as she will become known as to the small town of Barkley Cove, cannot read or count above 29, but she is very resourceful, knows the area, and briefly learns a few useful things from her father during his nicer periods. She also befriends a boy older than she, named Tate (who had been friends with her closest sibling Jodie) and a Black man named Jumper (who has a coastal filling station for boats) who are helpful to her journey.

The book is told largely in first person through Kya’s eyes, but we do get the occasional thoughts of other key characters, that help shape the story. They also offer a glimpse of the bias toward Kya as evidenced by the nickname, plus why those who help her, do so.

I highly recommend this book. The story and characters will intrigue you. You will also learn things that Kya learns or be amazed at what she had gleaned by age six, about the marsh, animals, birds, and fireflies. The title will also reveal its origins along the way. And, you will also learn through Kya’s eyes how people in different classes are treated or made to feel inferior.

Let me know your thoughts. Do your best not to give too much away for those who have not read the book, but they have been forewarned.

David and Goliath – Interesting View froms Malcolm Gladwell

I have often quoted Malcolm Gladwell, who is the best-selling author of books called “Blink,” “Outliers ”  and “The Tipping Point.” His latest book is also excellent and in keeping with his style of an outside looking in perspective – “David and Goliath.” Its subtitle elaborates further on its theme – “Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.”

“David and Goliath” helps us question how often and why underdogs are and can be successful. He starts with the biblical tale of how David slew the giant infantryman, Goliath, as one of the most celebrated underdogs. But, as Gladwell points out, David was not necessarily an underdog. David was an expert with a sling and had a history of bringing down large animals who threatened livestock. A sling was one of the artilleries of the day. When King Saul wanted David to wear armor to fight Goliath, he responded that he was not used to fighting in that way and did not care to put on the armor.

Goliath was likely around 6’8″ or larger, quite the imposing figure. He was insulted by the little boy coming down to fight him, but it may have been more than that. Based on observations made by Gladwell from the scriptures about an escort helping Goliath with his weapons, Goliath’s size and other comments the giant man made, Goliath may not have been able to see very well. So, David, whose accuracy with a sling was not unusual for someone who often used one, actually had an advantage over Goliath provided he fought him his way. He would only lose that advantage if he came in too close. Once released by sling, David’s stone traveled at significant speed and with its usual accuracy to Goliath’s peril.

Gladwell uses many other examples in his book about success of perceived underdogs. He highlights several times how people compensate for shortcomings and actually position themselves for success. A good example was the high percentage of dyslexic people who have been successful – David Boies, Charles Schwab, Gary Cohn, Richard Branson, etc. He notes how each compensated for their dyslexia by being terrific listeners, great involvers, and more daring people to get ahead. They also found their way into positions which would not obligate them to spend more time with their weaknesses, but would take advantage of their talents.

Boies became a great trial lawyer, but would have been a horrible corporate lawyer. Why? Because a corporate lawyer needed to read subtleties in printed contracts and documents, while a trial lawyer did not. Being a trial lawyer took advantage of his listening skills and ability to condense a case down into its simplest terms for a jury to understand. His listening skills were paramount as he could pick up on a slight hesitation from an expert witness as a sign of uncertainty. He was renowned for using the opposition’s expert witnesses to benefit his clients. He also prepared his witnesses to use the same inflection on answers to avoid the same trap. Ironically, none of the successful dyslexics would wish their dyslexia on their children, as it makes life hard.

Gladwell’s gift is to help people challenge normative thinking and show that what people believe to be true is not necessarily so. Several times he notes where efforts to accomplish something by a larger, stronger force, has the opposite effect, actually galvanizing the underdog for future success. In one enlightening example, he discussed the Battle of Britain, where the Germans mercilessly bombed London and surrounding areas. Yet, the conclusion by some psychological experts, the Germans would have been better off by not bombing London at all. Why? Outside of those who lost their lives and those who were close to the bombing, the great many who survived each bombing actually became more resolved. The survivalist nature of “I am still here,” had a profound impact. It was the British citizens saying to the Nazis, “is that all you got?” The world owes a huge debt to the British people for standing up against great odds by themselves until others would join in. Their resolve was only bolstered by overcoming the underdog status and still be standing after the bombs were dropped.

There are numerous other examples, but I wanted to give you a taste of the book. Gladwell’s books are a great blend of observation and storytelling with some data mixed in. His observations are grounded in his experience of always being an outsider. When I have seen him interviewed, he notes how different he looks as the son of a Jamaican mother and British father who grew up in Toronto. He said we were always outsiders, so we never accepted the status quo. His books are also a quick read. It is also hard for me to pick a favorite. Start with one and, if you like it, give another one a chance. You will be better for it, as he makes you think.

 

The Booklady – Dolly Parton

When people hear the name Dolly Parton, the first thing they think is probably her talented singing, songwriting, larger than life persona or her generous spirit. The first thing is probably not the booklady, but that is also a large part of who she is. As reported on PBS Newshour earlier this week, Dolly (I cannot call her just Parton) has an organization called “Imagination Library” that has distributed over 50 million books in 1,400 communities around the world. These books are sent directly to the kids who can retrieve their personal book from the mailbox to much anticipation. Please check it out at http://www.imaginationlibrary.com/.

She started Imagination Library in her home county in Tennessee as a tribute to her Dad. She said on PBS Newshour her Dad was a smart man, but never knew how to read or write, a shameful curse he lived with. She did not want kids in her county to go without books. So, she started a program where a child would be provided 60 books, one per month for the first 5 years of their life. The first one is given to the parents at the hospital. The idea spread to other counties, then near-by and other states and now is in Canada and the UK.

Dolly said more and more the kids call her “The Booklady” and she takes a great deal of pride in being more known for books than what made her famous. She said she feels like she is accomplishing something. Dolly, you are 100% correct. I have written before about an article written by David Brooks called “32 Million Fewer Words.”The link follows: https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2012/07/11/32-million-fewer-words/. The premise of this article is kids in poverty have heard 32 million fewer words than kids in more flourishing homes by the time they start pre-Kindergarten at age 4. The teachers in the PBS piece noted this as well. They said they can tell which kids have parents who read to them. It is obvious with their vocabulary and grasp of new words.

Some of the parents said these books are truly a Godsend. They cannot afford these books as they are living paycheck to paycheck. What do the kids think? The news report followed a couple of young girls as they showed with great pride their book collection and read from their favorite books. They also flipped the book over and showed their name and address indicating how it was sent to them. These are their books, so they treasured them even more. And, when the journalist asked them who is Dolly Parton? “She is the booklady,” they all responded.

I made the comment about Dolly’s generous spirit above. I have seen her interviewed several times. Her kind nature exudes from her. Barbara Walters has noted Dolly is one of the most genuine people she has ever interviewed. This is prima facie evidence of that assertion. Dolly, your legacy may be even larger than your legendary career – you are The Booklady. You should take pride in what you have created. Well done.