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 Monday, 13 January, 2003, 10:11 GMT
Why can't parents talk to their children?
Small children's poor conversational skills are being blamed on parents who sit for too long in front of the television and home computer.

Families are not talking with eachother around the dinner table enough, says Alan Wells of the Basic Skills Agency.

Language patterns at home feature one-word answers and monosyllabic conversations, characterised by Mr Wells as "the daily grunt".

Children are arriving at primary schools with low language development and parents need classes in how to speak creatively with their children, he added.

Why do you think children's language is suffering? Would you or your children benefit from communication classes?


This Talking Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Every time he tells us a bedtime story the phone rings

Aman Rizvi, Singapore
I am a child. I am nine years old. I think the main problem is mobile phones. My father is addicted to mobile phone conversations. Every single time he tells us a bedtime story the phone rings, and by the time his conversation is over, it's already bedtime.
Aman Rizvi, Singapore

Parents who cannot talk to their children have too much pride. They need to lower themselves a bit so that they are at the same level as their children and play around with them. That's what my parents did; I assure you that this does not undermine their respect in the least.
Abdurrahman Patel, Bolton, UK

I do not agree with this research. If TV and a modern lifestyle are to blame for lower standards of English, why do children get better and better GCSE English results each year?
Scott, UK

My mum and dad never sat with me at all

Steph, UK
I am 22 years old with a child of three. I work long hours but I always make sure that I sit down with my child. She can count up to ten in three different languages. I'm not the cleverest of people but if you put the effort in you will see the difference. Our kids are the most important things in the world but I understand how some parents don't have the patience; my mum and dad never sat with me at all. This will never happen with my child
Steph, UK

Adults take pleasure in talking because they are swapping gossip, expressing frustration or their point of view, or telling jokes and anecdotes. The reactions generated are enjoyable. But talking to very small children can require a lot of patience, the subject matter is often simple or boring to an adult and the responses can be frustrating, for example the four-year-old who keeps saying "But why?" to every answer she is given. How much easier it is just to put a child in front of a TV?!
Kathy, UK

Kathy says it's easier to put the child in front of the TV. But 10 years from now she will complain to her children that they never tell her anything any more. And once again blame them for a failure in communication when it is was always her responsibility. The failure to form a real honest relationship with one's child, because you do not consider the little person as fully human, is the foundation of this alienated "civilisation".
Deborah, UK

I have had some fantastic conversations with my son

Mike, UK
I don't agree with people who say talking to children is boring and the subject matter simple. I have had some fantastic conversations with my son (who is now six) about some really complex issues. I also find it refreshing how children are in awe of things us adults now find routine.
Mike, UK

I resent the idea that teenagers become grunting, unsociable zombies because of lack of parental interaction. I spent many hours with my two boys, when they were young, talking, reading playing and interacting, but this did not stop them becoming sultry, moody grunting morons when they became teenagers. Thankfully, they grew out of it and are now stable, articulate young adults. Surely this is all part of growing up
Carole Belton, UK

Obviously it's not the parents' fault - nothing is these days. It's not a lot of effort to play with a child for an hour a night, instead of watching a soap, and I know which I'd rather do.
Rob, England

For most people now, to afford to live both parents need to work all day - this must have an impact on the child - cared for all day by someone who doesn't love them, and then the parents get back, tired with no time to spend with their children. We are all forgetting that our children are our future; how we want society to be shaped should be reflected in the way we treat them.
Rog C, UK

It starts with silly sayings like choo choo for train

Geri, Hampshire
It starts with silly sayings like choo choo for train etc. Why can't parents bother to use correct terminology? We want the next generation to be educated, not a bunch of muppets.
Geri, Hampshire

Using baby words such as choo-choo for train is in no way damaging to children's speech. It's a great way of getting them interested in communicating at an age where they simply don't have the skill to get the mouths around the more complex sounds. As long as a dialogue is there, a healthy relationship will follow, whether that dialogue is conducted in Queen's English, baby-talk or the broadest of regional dialects.

And I really couldn't care less if some cultural snobs take offence at me asking my son to "Givvus a cwtch!" (Welsh dialect) rather than "Please may I have a cuddle?"
Tracey, UK

I think getting rid of our child's dummy before the age of two helped - how can a child learn to form words with a lump of plastic in its mouth? When we watch TV together we talk about what is happening and allow our child to watch a variety of programmes. I think much of it comes down to parents' general laziness to communicate with their children. We all lead busy lives, but for goodness sake, you can still talk while you're putting a frozen meal in the microwave!
Emma, England

Middle-class pride in raising verbose little know-alls is, frankly, comical

Oscar, UK
Most parents use TV as a means of keeping kids passively occupied. Without it, many parents would probably have nervous breakdowns. Parenting is exhausting - especially when you have to juggle work and family life. Kids can catch up with their communication skills at school. Middle-class pride in raising verbose little know-alls is, frankly, comical.
Oscar, UK

Over 90% people own a television but this has been the case since the 1970s. It is not fair to blame the television. I think it is the fact that both the mother and father work long hours these days.
Robert, UK

It's simple. These parents are the first generation to have grown up in front of the TV. The first generation to spend every day of their lives in front of that worthless box, never talking to anyone, never thinking for themselves. They've lost the ability to communicate, something humans have enjoyed for aeons and has always separated us from the animals. But this mindless media generation will be far far worse.
M Maguire, UK

We are witnessing the evolution of the English language. Watch out for the new editions of Shakespeare and Dickens in text message speak: condensed to hold the shortest of attention spans. Perhaps Orwell wasn't too far off with his prediction of newspeak.
Martin, UK

We cannot be blamed for his teachers not capturing his imagination

Paula, UK
To a degree, it is the parents' fault for not encouraging their child. However, I have two children and one is happy to talk to me for hours on end, about anything, whereas my other child would rather let his brother do all the talking. This does not mean he is incapable of holding a conversation, quite the contrary in fact. His speech is clearer and his vocabulary is varied, yet his teachers say he will not speak to them. Now tell me whose fault it is? We as parents cannot be blamed for his teachers not capturing his imagination.
Paula, UK

Have "small children" ever had good conversational skills? The kid of a friend often visits with her and when talking to us the kid is fairly quiet and does answer in one word. Yet stick him in with other kids and they natter all the time. I am sure that this work on TV influence may be accurate but I can not help think that Mr Wells is missing the point.
N .Bradley, UK

The parenting skills need to be consistent. We get my step-daughter every two weeks, and we have to re-train her every weekend, not just in vocabulary, but manners, and behaviour. There is no tactful way of telling the other parental unit that they are raising a little girl to get her MRS degree by being cute, is simply not going to cut it, in society today. If parents would team up, instead of being so adversarial, I think a lot of problems might be solved.
Sophia, UK

New media forms should be embraced

Matt, Edinburgh
Face to face talking is not the sole method of communication, or entertainment, these days. We have to accept this and move with the times. New media forms should be embraced for their positive aspects; old media forms will survive if they have value. My kids love watching TV; I love watching TV with them; the entertainment they like the most is me reading a book to them; and I look forward to the day when I can have intelligent conversations with them and listen to what they say. It's all about shared narrative folks!
Matt, Edinburgh

I know several children of a similar age whose conversational skills are staggeringly different and the differences are definitely linked to the quantity and quality of conversations at home. I know two who virtually shout all their words because they permanently have to compete with the volume on the TV. For everyone's sake, turn the TV off before we become stupid as well as overweight.
Ella, UK

Families have always been like this

Jose Marquez, Argentina
Families have always been like this and the new technologies are not to blame. The eternal problem is that parents think they are always right as if age grants automatic wisdom. The clash of parental self-righteousness and the kids' desire not to conform and to defy their parents leads to stand-offs and broken-down communication.
Jose Marquez, Argentina

Television, for all its wonders, is definitely behind this problem. I spent the first eight years of my life without permission to watch TV except for nature shows and Sesame Street. I talked to my parents, read with them and put on mini plays with other children instead. Despite both of them working, we always had dinner together. As a result, I read when I was only three, got excellent results all through school and have an extremely close relationship with my parents.
Andrea, UK

Is this problem limited to kids? How many adult to adult conversations pass for more than a few grunts?
Tony, UK

Bring back hanging for people who say "Innit?"!
Wendy, UK

Wendy - people have said "innit" for years in a slightly different context from Ali G. This is a dialectical feature of a certain area. Years ago, the same would have been said of "yeah" rather than "yes". Quality of conversation is not related at all. And as for capital punishment...
Kevin, Germany

This is almost exclusively a working class problem

William van Zwanenberg, England
I fear this is almost exclusively a working class problem, prolific where unemployment is rife and where more than one generation have not had the benefit of post-secondary education. This phenomenon does it exist but its not exclusive to children. This particular social group have an inability to communicate effectively with one another let alone their kids!
William van Zwanenberg, England

I suspect the claim that this is a working class problem is wishful thinking from someone who thinks himself elevated above the common folk. It is us middle classes who have allowed ourselves to get sucked into 60+ hour weeks, and so who are spending insufficient time with our children.
John, England

Stop blaming the TV or the internet for everything! Actually research shows that TV improves language skills in children, increases their vocabulary and the internet gives them access to more information, which makes them more articulate. The problem of "grunting" is more to do with dysfunctional families, who are constantly in conflict and cannot talk to each other - you find this accross the board, not just among the working classes!
Jeremy Guggenheim, UK

"Almost exclusively a working class problem"!? How does the obviously detached from reality William van Zwanenberg know this? Such arrogance won't solve the issue. The degeneration of family function in society as a whole due to increasing external demands on parents in this modern environment mean children are more and more required to learn by themselves. I'm only 19 but even I can appreciate that parents need support, not insults!
Paul, UK

Will van Z aside, this problem is now endemic in our culture, regardless of class. One of my married daughters works in a law firm and her husband is a teacher with a decent degree but their children - although bright and literate at six and four respectively - are (by my terms of reference) badly disciplined because of the time both parents spent out pursuing careers and then, coming home full of guilt and over-compensating with inappropriate treats, many of which were conversation-stopping videos.

Those who say reading to children is part of the solution are right; those who encourage discussions at the dinner table are right - but please not in front of the TV.
Richard, Stockport, UK

In our house the long hours culture is to blame for not eating together. That's a weekends-only treat. My wife leaves at 6.30am and returns at 8.30pm, not that unusual, I think. The government are entirely to blame for this, as she works for them!
Martin, UK

when we lve ina tecno gn8ion, wot do u thk wil hpn 2 our kids. tlk mre 2 thm & u wll c hw cleva & wde thr vocab is & th imptce of spech. i gtg, ttyl.
Chris Thomas, Nottingham Uni, UK

Parents do talk to their children, and the TV and computers do too. Some parents, however, seem as unable as the TV and computer to listen to what their children say. What's the point of developing conversation skills if no-one wants to hear your side of the conversation?
Julian Hayward, UK

One-word answers are preferable to verbal diarrhoea!

Ray, UK
One-word answers and monosyllabic conversations are far preferable to verbal diarrhoea! Speech should be an efficient tool for communication, not a weapon to prove superiority. Every utterance should be as complicated as needed, but no more.
Ray, UK

The best way to build vocabulary skills in children is to read to them! 20 minutes a day, every day. Read from well-written books and children will absorb the words like a sponge. Ours did!
Barbara, US

Thank you Barbara (US) for confirming that it was not just our family which enjoyed the benefit of reading to our children. Remembering this activity as a child, and now doing this as a parent, it is a joy to take some time out and to sit down with a good book. Reading serves to teach good vocabulary and stimulates the imagination. Why does it seem to be so unfashionable? Possibly because many parents simply can't be bothered to concern themselves with something which is apparently "uncool".
Steve Cahill, England

This is a totally alien concept in our rather garrulous household; I cannot get my kids or my wife to shut up!
Sam Archer, USA

My wife and I have deliberately spoken to our child as an adult from day one, he's now four. By the age of two he knew 300 words; children need to be able to speak 20 words by that age apparently. We have always answered his questions and encouraged him to speak freely. He is a fantastic speaker, no accent, very clear, and streets ahead of his peers.
Iain Ferguson, UK

Mr Iain Ferguson's claim that his child has 'no accent' is ridiculous. Everyone has an accent. Saying you don't have one is like saying you live in the centre of the universe. Perhaps what he means is that his child has an anodyne RP cum Estuary English accent.
Steve Carter, UK

I'm very pleased for Mr Iain Ferguson and his success with his four-year-old but I fail to see why he's so proud that his child has "no accent". The richness of our language grows from our varied dialects and vocabulary. Sounds like his son has missed out.
Marie Hodkinson, UK

Iain, well done. But don't feel so superior; its far from unusual. Dare I say it should be the norm. As for children who keep asking why; that shows they want to soak up knowledge. Answer as best you can, pointing out if its a certainty, just what you believe, or be honest and say when you don't know. Then find out, preferably together. Yes it takes time, but talking together not only builds up knowledge, but also a relationship and trust. (Who ever said raising children was easy?)
Simon, England

The only way for a child to build up their vocabulary is for them to simply use their language as often as possible. I suspect some parents may have a fairly limited vocabulary themselves which will also have the same result as a "daily grunt".
Nick Southwood, UK

'sright.
John, UK

I used to work in a nursery where many children were unable to hold a conversation. The kind of people who would take time to go to classes on conversation and be concerned about the problem would make an effort to talk to their children anyway. I'm not sure it would get through to parents who are not concerned.
Rebecca, UK

Good point Rebecca, the same parents who make an effort to encourage their children with reading are the only ones that will bother with their conversational skills. Too many parents believe their children's education starts and ends during the school day. That is why they also find school holidays a nightmare, because they have no real relationship with their children aside from the everyday functionalities.
Paul, Australia

What you say Paul, is very true. I stand outside the classroom on the last day of school listening to the parents who don't work moaning about what they're going to have to do during the holidays and on the first day back saying how glad they are that the children are back at school. I wish I had the luxury of being able to have the holidays with mine. I also strongly believe in reading with your children and answering all their questions. I have two children who never stop talking, I would hate it if they were quiet all the time.
Bev, Wales

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09 Jan 03 | Education
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