Parents experiencing financial hardship may talk less with their kids.
Recent research from the University of California Berkeley found that economic context may be to blame for the “word gap”, where children from lower income households have heard millions of fewer words than their more affluent peers by kindergarten.
“Although there has been a great deal of research on the consequences of the “word gap” there has been a lot less research on the causes. Much of the existing research has focused on individual-level characteristics of parents: for example, maybe parents with fewer resources have less parenting knowledge or effort than parents with more resources and this helps explain why they speak less to their children,” Mahesh Srinivasan, senior author of the study and a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley told Theravive.
“It struck us that what was missing from this conversation was whether poverty and structural inequality itself… could itself impact how parents engage with their children, regardless of parents’ own level of parenting knowledge or effort. Research in behavioral economics has shown that the experience of resource scarcity can capture a person’s attention and affect their mental health; we applied this idea to ask whether the experience of financial scarcity itself may lead parents to speak less to their children.”
In undertaking the research, Srinivasan and colleagues conducted two experiments. In the first, the researchers observed how parents interacted with their three years olds when one group of parents were asked to describe an occasion recently when they had experienced scarcity.
Another group was asked to describe other recent activities instead. The researchers found that those who had experienced financial hardship spoke to their child less during the experiment than their peers.
In the second experiment, talk pedometer devices were worn by children to count the number of words they said and heard. The researchers discovered that parents talked with their children less at the end of the month, which is a time often associated with money being tight and parents awaiting the arrival of paychecks.
“Parents who had more economic/educational resources showed the predicted effect (speaking less to their children in the last week of the month) most strongly. This suggests that even parents who are thought to have high levels of parenting knowledge/skill speak less to their children when they experience financial strain,” Srinivasan said.
“One possibility is that parents who have fewer resources experience financial strain more regularly throughout the month, and not just in the last week, explaining why we don’t see a dip in how much they speak to their children at the end of the month.”
But the phrase “word gap”, he says, is unhelpful.
“The term “word gap” is itself problematic, as it focuses on perceived deficits in parents and children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This has several unfortunate consequences, for example in leading parents to feel blamed and teachers to assume that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are incapable of high levels of achievement,” he told Theravive.
“It is important to point out that simply directing more words to a child is not necessary for a child to learn language (indeed, in many cultures around the world parents don’t speak much directly to children early in life), nor is a child’s vocabulary the only meaningful aspect of their linguistic knowledge. There are many other aspects to being a speaker of one’s language, such as using language to connect with others or tell stories.”
Srinivasan argues the research is important as it highlights the reasoning for the word gap is not the responsibility of parents, but is reflective of broader social inequalities.
“If financial scarcity (or other experiences related to poverty) affect how parents engage with their children, then this could have implications for interventions that seek to encourage parents to speak more to their children. Specifically, it may not be enough to just provide parenting training—it may be necessary to provide parents with more economic and other resources that they need in order to be effective parents,” he said.
“The message of our research really is not that parents who are experiencing financial struggles may also be doing something wrong by speaking less to their children. Parents are generally already trying to do their best for their child; what we are suggesting is that this is difficult to do in a world with (increasing) economic and other inequities. We must address the root cause of inequities and ensure that all parents have the resources they need.”
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.