I first heard of Geoffrey Canada in 2008 when his story was featured on the NPR program, This American Life. (You can listen to it here.) His ambitious program to end poverty captured my imagination in its simplicity.
He and his team approached every parent they encountered within a certain area of Harlem and asked them to come to hear how they can make life better for their children. They approached women pushing strollers and men holding the hands of toddlers and said, “Come to the community center at 9 AM on Saturday morning to learn how you can ensure your child makes it out of Harlem.”
When the parents of these babies and infants and toddlers gathered in the meeting place, Geoffrey Canada looked at them and said, “Who here wants a better life for their children than they have?” Every hand went up. “I’m going to show you how you can do that,” he said. And then he told them the secret:
Read to your children.
Now, if you are reading this blog right now, chances are excellent that you are middle class or upper middle class–and so the notion of reading to your children when they are little isn’t exactly earth-shattering to you. In fact, you are probably thinking, “Duh!”
But to those lower income families gathered in Harlem, the thought of reading to their children was as foreign as the thought that you shouldn’t yell at them all the time or let them drink Mountain Dew.
Mr. Canada knows that stimulating a child’s brain at an early age is the key to ending poverty. To put it succinctly: kids who like to read do better in school = they get better grades = they stay in school = they get better paying jobs.
So he founded the Harlem Children’s Zone and then The Baby College for the parents of children age 0-3, and for 9 Saturdays in a row, he and his staff teach parents the solution to poverty: read to your children.
The more you introduce language to children, the more they grab it. Middle and upper middle class parents typically know that, but in those 97 city blocks of Harlem, no one had previously stressed the importance of reading.
It turns out that the biggest difference between the haves and the have-nots is language acquisition, because that translates into verbal ability.
James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, found the difference in the sheer number of words that middle class parents speak to their child–as opposed to poverty class parents–differs by about 20 million words. So, by age three, your middle class child has been exposed to 20 million more words than a poor three year old.
Heckman found that job training isn’t the solution to ending welfare because, by the time poor people are young adults, very basic skills haven’t been learned: the ability to communicate, read the newspaper, have self-control–even the ability to get out of bed to regularly go to work.
This is harder and harder if not achieved by ages 8, 9, 10–to some extent, it’s already too late! Those early years are the time to snuggle up with a book and read to your very young child.
The sad reality is that, if you are reading this, you probably already know that. Please spread the word to someone who does not.