A few years ago, while attending a research conference in Boston, I took a walk from my hotel to a nearby park along the Charles River. While crossing a pedestrian overpass, I saw a parent with two young children -- one a toddler and the other an infant -- crossing the bridge toward me.
The toddler held a small ball in his hands and as they reached the top of the bridge, commented to his parent: "I better hold on tight to the ball so it doesn't roll away."
The parent responded: "That's right. If you drop the ball on the bridge, gravity will pull it down to the bottom of the hill and it could get lost."
The following week, after returning from the conference, I witnessed a very different interaction between a parent and a child of a similar age.
The young child, buckled securely in the shopping cart as the parent strolled down the prepared cereal aisle of a local grocery store, became very excited when he saw a favorite cartoon character represented on a cereal box. The young boy urgently pointed out the character to the parent.
The parent harshly responded by saying: "Be quiet! You know I can't think about my shopping when you're talking."
These two examples of parent-child interaction illustrate the power of the parent's role as a child's first teacher.
The first child not only learned a new vocabulary term to describe why balls roll downhill ("gravity"), but the parent's patient response taught him that the observations he makes about the world around him are important and valued by the parent.
By dismissing the second child's observation, the parent taught the child that his interests and observations are not important and that he should not "bother" his parent with them.
The first child will be more likely to ask questions and share new discoveries with his parent in the future, providing the parent with opportunities to link the child's discoveries with additional knowledge provided by the parent. The lesson learned by the second child will likely be to keep his observations and interests to himself -- losing out on the possible benefit of the parent shaping new learning.
Education gaps are already very evident among children by the time they enter kindergarten. The way parents interact with children in the pre-kindergarten years is a big contributor to this gap.
Parents can be effective "first teachers" by:
1) Being aware of children's interests by noticing what infants focus on and by listening carefully to what young children say as they experience their world and then
2) Supporting and extending children's interests and discoveries by providing a framework through describing children's experiences and giving the child additional, related information to help construct new knowledge (a process called "scaffolding" in the early learning field).
By acknowledging interests and providing learning support, parents can promote curiosity and confidence to explore and discover that provides the foundation for children's lifelong learning.
Jared Lisonbee is a faculty member in the department of child and family studies at Weber State University. Opinions expressed in the column do not necessarily reflect those of WSU.