Who Needs the Starling?: A Cautionary Tale

You gotta be kidding! Something new is on the market that many middle class families will want. It is called the Starling. It is a little microphone babies wear on their clothes to record the amount of language spoken to them. The cost? $129 dollars. Who will buy this? Will it become a standard part of the equipment parents assemble along with crib and car seat in anticipation of their blessed event?

Parents who worry that they don't talk to their baby enough will buy it. These parents likely know about the 30-million word gap identified between rich and poor by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley. By the time children reach age 4, poor parents will have addressed 30 million fewer words to their children compared to professional level families. But here is the irony: Just the parents who worry about not saying enough are probably the parents who are talking the most. These parents don't need it.

Parents of children who have in-home day care might buy it, The Starling joins the ranks of the Nanny-cam that shoots images directly to parents at their desks or on their cell phones. No longer will parents ask, "How was Johnny today?" Now they will rush home to download the amount of speech the Starling detected. How will the caregiver at home feel about this? Monitored? Watched? Evaluated. Would you agree to this if you were a caregiver? Will all your phone conversations be recorded? Will your TV watching be recorded too? No soaps for my baby - even if she is sleeping; only Teletubbies or Sesame Street will do.

Parents of children who are experiencing the 30-million word gap will not buy this device. Why? Because they are often low income and cannot spring for $129 to record their own or others' speech to their babies. Because -- more fundamentally -- these parents may not appreciate the importance of having vacuous, loving conversations with babies. Why talk to babies who can't talk themselves? Why, if you have never noticed how when you 'talk' to the baby she 'talks' back to you, would you think that talking to the baby would matter for anything?

But the marketplace rules. It tells parents what they need to worry about. Now it's language. But not just language. A specific amount of language -- a threshold -- should be heard by the baby each and every day. Parents are the prey of the marketplace -- especially new parents who are acutely aware of their limited parenting skills. They may heed the call of the marketplace and think they need to purchase devices of this nature for their babies to thrive. Low-income families will just feel badly -- oh, something else (like those electronic toys) I can't afford for my child.

The Starling is unnecessary and anxiety provoking for the parents who will buy it. And it will not solve the problem of helping low income families appreciate the importance of responding to those goos and gaas. Yet language development begins with these amusing and dear exchanges between parent and child. Treating babies' vocalizations as though they have meaning sets the stage for building a communication foundation upon which language will be built. Conversational duets between parent and child -- even when the parent says little of substance and the baby even less -- sets up the parent to respond to the child's vocalizations in a timely manner. This is what matters for language development; the number of utterances addressed to the child matter far less than the 'conversations' parents hold with their child.

You gotta be kidding -- what's next? Pedometers for babies? Little selfie cameras to record their smiles? Relax America. The people the Starling is pitched to are not the ones having the problem. Only meaningful research and dissemination will help us reach the families who need to understand the importance of communicating with little minds from the get go.