In my life in cable television, before Fairyland, I had the opportunity to meet and chat with President Jimmy Carter, baseball great Hank Aaron, media mogul Ted Turner and his then-wife Jane Fonda, and photographer Ansel Adams. But being in the same room last week with Hillary Rodham Clinton gave me a particularly special sort of civic high.
The former First Lady, U.S. senator, presidential candidate and Secretary of State was at Children’s Hospital in Oakland to announce a national campaign, “Talking Is Teaching: Talk Read Sing,” which launched at Children’s Fairyland the following day. (Read OL’s story here.)
The program aims to close the “word gap,“ a difference of about 30 million words between what children in high-income families hear from parents and caregivers by their fourth birthday and what kids in low-income families hear.
The fewer words children hear and learn, the more likely they are to experience an achievement gap, which persists through the years and has a lifelong impact on health and well-being. Parents and caregivers can help close the word gap by talking, reading and singing to their children every day, from birth onward.
The event, which was covered by every possible media outlet, was attended by representatives of the campaign’s key sponsors: UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, the Bay Area Council, and Next Generation. Also there was a virtual who’s who of business, foundations, government and organizations serving the early-childhood community in Oakland.
Until last week, I hadn’t known that Hillary Clinton took a one-year leave from law school to attend Yale’s Child Study Center, where she was introduced to research that proves the importance of brain development during the first five years of life. After I heard her remarks, I realized that this issue—while not at the same level as the Middle East negotiations she’s participated in—is extremely close to her heart.
“Too many decisions are made in an evidence-free zone,” Hillary told the audience. (Although we’re not really on a first-name basis, so many people call Ms. Clinton “Hillary” that I’m going to do so as well.) There is compelling research, she said, that overhearing adult conversations or listening to television dialogue doesn’t have the same effect as one-on-one talk. When a parent or caregiver talks directly to and interacts with their infant or toddler, “Not only do their faces light up, but their brains light up, too,” Hillary said.
When her daughter was very young, Hillary said, she loved singing to her, but as soon as Chelsea was old enough to talk she cast a nay vote. “Mommy, no sing,” was her request. “Bill’s a better singer,” Hillary admitted. Undaunted, she said she’s looking forward to talking, reading and singing with her first grandchild, due later this year.
You can bet that when Hillary is spokesperson for a campaign, people listen. Take the creative team at the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, who wrote in a scene in Season 2 in which an incarcerated Latina mother makes her boyfriend promise to interact more mindfully with their baby every day. At their next visit, there is a dramatic difference in the level of Dad’s involvement with the baby, and he looks much happier for it.
Hillary has also met with the folks at PBS’ Sesame Street and with the American Academy of Pediatrics, and she’ll continue to promote the campaign at the national level. In advance of the campaign, research was done with Oakland’s low-income parents. They were asked to draw pictures reflecting their dreams and aspirations for their kids. To a person, they drew pictures of their kids in graduation caps and gowns.
Secretary Clinton, who came across as sincere, warm and very funny, wants to make these parents’ dreams come true. “We’re talking about the best and most empowering message to parents: you can make your baby smarter,” she said.
But there’s a disparity between dreams and reality. Only 43 percent of low-income parents reported telling a story to their child on a daily basis, only 49 percent sing to their child daily, only 42 percent play a non-electronic game, and only 52 percent read a book each day.
It’s going to be up to a broad community coalition to close the gap. Billboards, posters, TV ads, a new clothing line created by Oaklandish, and a Sesame Street-branded toolkit to be given to parents at hospitals: these are just a few of the outreach measures. Schools, libraries, churches and—of course—Children’s Fairyland, will help by distributing campaign materials and reinforcing the message.
I admit I had hoped that Hillary would mention Children’s Fairyland, which hosted the campaign’s successful kickoff last week, but that was left for someone else to announce. She did mention Oaklandish, and that made me happy.
Local literacy champion and Oakland native Brian Rogers, chief executive officer of the Rogers Family Foundation, challenged Hillary to ensure that the Oakland campaign is sustainable and scalable. He urged that this not be a one-time visit. “I will come back, Brian,” Hillary promised. “This is the beginning of an amazing journey.”
There may or may not be another political campaign in Hillary’s future, but for now, it’s all about our kids. We’d better win this one in Oakland. Learn more by visiting TalkReadSing.org.