The Economist: In the Beginning Was the Word

The Economist Gets it Right

“Pre-school programmes are known to develop children’s numeracy, social skills and (as the term “pre-school” suggests) readiness for school. But they do not deal with the gap in much earlier in development . . . And it is this gap, more than a year’s pre-schooling at age four, which seems to determine a child’s chances for the rest of his life.” So ends In the Beginning Was the Word: How Babbling to Babies Can Boost Their Brains in the February 14, 2014 print edition of The Economist.


I could have written the article. It echoed strikingly my letter to the editor which The Economist published on October 13, 2012:

“SIR – Regarding your article on preschool education, it is not true that ‘poverty is the biggest factor’ in health, cognitive and developmental disparities among young children (‘Start them early’, September 22nd) . . . ‘Disadvantage is not always closely linked to family income or even parental education. The real measure of child poverty is the quality of parenting.’ . . .After all, without intervention to support parents in poverty, preschool is not about preparation; it is about remediation.”

Indeed, the issue is so important, it should make the cover of The Economist. However there was a striking irony in the choice of title; it invoked religious language, and yet was silent on the moral and spiritual formation of young children.

Beyond Words: Social, Spiritual and Moral Development

The article focused on the power of words spoken to children in the earliest years of life to shape the their cognitive and linguistic development. The impact of these words extends to the social, spiritual and moral development of children. To wit, social and verbal interactions between parent (or caregiver) and child establish social norms implicitly. Young children imitate intonation, patterns of speech, and facial expression unconsciously in response to their parents. Moral formation in the early years likewise happens continually. Verbal and nonverbal encouragements and prohibitions establish a child’s understanding and practice of good action. These two taken together are critical because children’s character is a stronger predictor of achievement than their intelligence.

The title “In the Beginning was the Word” is an allusion to the first sentence of the Gospel of John in the Christian New Testament. The Economist wanted to make the case that words in early life matter. And they do. I’ve written a book about it. But the deep irony is that the Biblical allusion points to Jesus, one who didn’t come merely to improve developmental outcomes for young children. The first sentence of John’s Gospel continues, ” . . . and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”

Believing these things to be true, I tell them to my children. We pray together. We worship together. We understand our experience in the world in the context of this reality. The way we use words in the home profoundly forms the spiritual lives of our children – whether we consider ourselves spiritual or not. Consider the widely divergent experiences of children who are raised in devout Christian, Muslim, Hindu or secularist homes. A child’s posture toward God, other people, and the created order is profoundly molded by the experiences of early childhood. Who could possibly contend that these differences don’t matter?

With words, we make sense of the world. Words matter because they render reality. It isn’t just how many of them we hear, or how adept we become in using them. The words we hear tell us who we are and why we’re here, whether we are disposable or indispensable. They form in us habits of heart and mind that frame for us the significance or insignificance of other human persons. Words quicken our imaginations to dream what we can make of the world.

If we truly care about children, we must resist the spirit of the age which counts words and discounts the content of those words. Only in doing so will we have any hope of wisely forming those children spiritually, morally, and socially – and yes, linguistically and cognitively – to be the persons that they were created to be.

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