How many words will children hear in their lifetime?
Are their parents to blame?
Research has long pointed the finger at them by focusing on knowledge and parental skill. But a new study suggests financial hardship and income inequality affect how much caregivers talk to kids.
In a study in Developmental Science, researchers asked caregivers with 3-year-olds to reflect on times of scarcity, especially financial scarcity. Some imagined scenarios such as a house fire requiring expensive repairs or a dramatic stock market crash; others were prompted to think about nonfinancial problems such as running out of fruit.
Researchers then observed the parents as they interacted with their kids.
Caregivers who had been asked the questions about financial scarcity talked significantly less to their children than the control group and used fewer word types.
In another experiment, the researchers put devices on children that can count the words they say and hear and had them wear them for a month. They found that around the end of the month — prime time for economic insecurity because monthly budgets have run out — parents talked less to their children.
The study challenges the notion that people who speak fewer words to their children are bad or uneducated parents. Rather, the research suggests that systemic challenges like poverty can play a role in how much parents talk to their kids, and that reducing income inequality could boost kids’ chances at success in the future.
“This research doesn’t mean that children whose parents are struggling financially are doomed to have smaller vocabularies,” said Monica Ellwood-Lowe, a PhD student at the University of California at Berkeley and the study’s lead author, in a statement. “The takeaway here is really just the importance of making sure parents have the resources they need to parent.”