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Alison Mau: You don't need expensive toys or technology to grow your babies' brains – just sing to them

Dr Lance O'Sullivan was treating children and teenagers in hospital, into the wee hours of Saturday morning: "Young people who will be parents in just a few years and their lives will be chaos, you can see that now".

OPINION: Our house is usually full of chat. I know, riiiight? Who'd have thought a radio host likes to talk? Sometimes, when I get home after conducting a dozen interviews in a shift I am determined not to talk at all – I'm done. Silence will be the rule tonight.

This lasts until about half way through MasterChef, when I'll hit the live pause button and interrogate the wife about her day. I can't help myself. She doesn't like to talk much before 11am, so in the mornings it's quieter, but at least there's the new puppy, who thinks everything I say is absolute genius.

I was the same with my babies long ago. Yak yak yak as we wandered about talking to ducks, dogs, the postman.

When Alison Mau did voluntary literacy work, she discovered that many parents hit their children because that's all they knew – they didn't have the words to discipline their kids any other way.

That's more than 15 years back, and at the time I wasn't aware of any fancy studies that proved I was doing the "right thing" for their development. I'm delighted with the results now, but back then the babies were attentive and clapped their chubby little hands at every lame joke, and that was enough.

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Now we know the massive benefits simple talk and song has on the very young, and more importantly, what the lack of it can do. There's something else though; how good it makes you feel as a parent. Walk down the road with a stroller and a running commentary and you might feel as though like you're auditioning for a role on Play School; but when the kid starts pointing out the dog, the tree and the letterbox, you get a rush of achievement that little else can match. I made her talk. I made her laugh, she can sing the national anthem! (Ok, that takes a bit longer).


In the early 2000s I did some volunteer work for an adult education pilot programme at a South Auckland school. The idea was to bring a child's carer, generally a parent or grandparent, into their school to learn literacy and parenting skills a couple of days a week – a brilliant programme, sadly cancelled through lack of funding.

In some cases these parents had been on benefits for decades; this was their first step back into learning and a number of them went on to tertiary education and graduated as teachers and social workers, lifting their households out of poverty.

But one of the most inspiring aspects of the course was watching them change their parenting styles. Many of them had always disciplined their children by force. I plucked up the courage to ask one woman why she hit her children, and her answer has stayed with me.

"It was all I knew – that's what my parents did with me, and their parents did with them," she told me. "But now I know I can use words instead."

She was genuinely thrilled to be given the chance to learn a new, better way to be a parent. Hearing her articulate that was humbling.

We don't teach this in schools, and we can't assume people innately know this stuff.

The research at the centre of Love Grows Brains shows how powerful words can be for a parent. Anything that encourages mums and dads to talk to their babies and toddlers, to chat and sing and explain and describe, is a brilliant idea. Bringing it to the parents and children who need it most could save lives, and change the prospects of a generation of Kiwis.

It's accessible to everyone. You don't need expensive toys or technology, you don't have to be a poet laureate or have the angelic voice and songwriting skills of Anika Moa. The babies don't care if you sound like me in the shower (pretty bad).

But you do need time, a calm space in your household, and a head that's not constantly filled with worry about finances or job security.

Northland GP and New Zealander of the Year Dr Lance O'Sullivan is one of the heavy-hitters behind Love Grows Brains. He'd just come from the hospital when I spoke to him, having spent the wee hours treating "young people who will be parents in just a few years and their lives will be chaos, you can see that now".

He agrees the programme is aspirational. "It's hard to tell someone who has four kids and no prospect of a job, who has a sense of hopelessness about their life, that they need to find space in their home and their heart to invest in their kids like this when they're very little.

"This is a road map for what things should look like. Whether we then put the services around it that would help everyone use it, is up to us."

Love Grows Brains would work so well in concert with adequate parental leave open to both mums and dads, flexible working conditions that acknowledge the importance of child rearing, and stable, sustained employment that pays a living wage.

* Ali Mau is the host of RadioLIVE Drive, 3-6pm weekdays

Sunday Star Times



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