How fathers boost toddlers’ language development

June 30th, 2014

by Katrina Brooke

June 10, 2014 at 11:37 AM ET

'Do Fathers Matter?'

Scientific American

Popular convention may dictate that the father’s role in the early development of his children pales in comparison to the mother’s, but author Paul Raeburn is shedding new light on the science behind the vital role of the often overlooked male parent. 

I’ve always thought that watching children learn to talk is one of the highlights of parenting. It’s a hallmark of their lives during their first few years. They learn to make their wishes known— often emphatically known. What begins in infancy with gestures and sounds develops into competence with language by around age three.

Fathers are proving to be an important part of this process, as Lynne Vernon-Feagans of the University of North Carolina and her colleague Nadya Pancsofar at the College of New Jersey are finding out.

They have done some of the most interesting work looking at children’s language development in both middle-class and poor, rural families. And they’ve found, to their surprise, that not only are fathers important for children’s language development, but that fathers matter more than mothers. In middle-class families, parents’ overall level of education and the quality of child care were both related to children’s language development.

But fathers “made unique contributions to children’s expressive language development” that went “above and beyond” the contributions of education and child care. When fathers used more words with their children during play, children had more advanced language skills a year later. The implication is that fathers may also be making important contributions to their children’s later success in school.

Vernon-Feagans and Pancsofar suspected the situation might be different in poor families, so they decided to take a look. They selected families from central Pennsylvania and eastern North Carolina, where about half of children lived in poverty at the time. A total of 1,292 infants in two parent families participated in the study.

The researchers visited the children’s families when the children were six months old, fifteen months old, and three years old. They found that fathers’ education and their use of vocabulary when reading picture books to their children at six months of age were significantly related to the children’s expressiveness at fifteen months and use of advanced language at age three. This held true no matter what the mother’s educational level was or how she spoke to the children.

When I spoke with Vernon-Feagans about her findings, she said she was surprised by the difference between mothers and fathers. She had thought they would be equally involved in encouraging their children’s language development.

Why would fathers be more important in this regard than mothers? The hypothesis is that it’s because mothers are more attuned to their children, typically spending more time with them than fathers do. That makes mothers more likely to choose words the kids are familiar with. Fathers aren’t as attuned to their kids, so they use a broader vocabulary, and their children learn new words and concepts as a result.

Vernon-Feagans thought there might be another factor at play as well. Because fathers usually spend less time with their children, they are more of a novelty. That makes them more interesting playmates. When she looked at the videos from her language experiments, she saw that fathers were very engaged. Playing with their children was something they enjoyed. It didn’t matter what their income was.

“I do think our children see it as very special when they do book reading with their fathers . . . They may listen more and acquire language in a special way.” The effect of fathers on children’s language continues until they enter school.

But fathers contribute to their children’s mental development more broadly than just with respect to language. They also influence their children’s intellectual growth, adjustment to school, and behavior, as Catherine Tamis-LeMonda of New York University and her colleagues discovered.

They were interested in the influence of fathers on language in families involved in Head Start, a federal program intended to enhance the intellectual, emotional, and social development of low- income children in the years before they start school.

According to the researchers, poor fathers can have difficulty maintaining “positive and emotionally supportive relationships with their children,” in part because they have limited resources and often unstable employment.

Tamis-LeMonda and her colleagues studied 290 fathers who lived in the home with their children and their partners, to find out how their play with children differed from that of mothers, and how their behavior related to their children’s language and cognitive development.

The researchers watched fathers’ interactions with their children—and, separately, mothers’ interactions with their children—during a period of free play when the children were two years old, and again when they were three. They found that these were mostly good parents.

They challenged the assumption by some researchers “that low-income parents primarily engage in authoritarian exchanges with their young children and that fathers are harsh disciplinarians.” The sensitivity of the parents, their positive regard for their children, and the intellectual stimulation they offered predicted that the children would do well on tests of development and vocabulary later on.

Excerpted from Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked, by Paul Raeburn (Scientific American/FSG, 2014).

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