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Fathers trump mothers when it comes to reading

Perhaps dad should do the reading from here on out. (Amy Joyce)

We heard the news yesterday that many pediatricians at those bleary-eyed well-baby visits will start advising parents to read to their newborns. The research is there — the more a baby hears a loved one’s voice, the more his little brain will grow.

Ends up that perhaps those readers should be dad.

I read to my kids when they were newborns. Part of it was just to get through the long, arduous days where I heard nothing but whimpers and the woosh-woosh-woosh of the glider. I remember being a little startled by my voice when I read to them, which is good enough reason to read to your little blob of love. Sometimes, in the day-to-day diaper-feeding-cuddling routine of newborn-ness, we forget to talk. Babies aren’t interacting yet and we’re tired and focused on the tasks at hand. But reading stops you, creates a connection and, yes, eats away at the seemingly long minutes.

Sure, there were times when the books I read to my newborns were by authors like John Irving or Anne Lamott. At the time, they suited my purpose: The babies heard my voice and a ton of new words, and I got myself a little entertainment.

Turns out it would have suited them better if my husband had been doing the reading.

Lynne Vernon-Feagans, a professor and researcher in early childhood intervention and literacy, studies how parents read to their children and what impact that has on them.

What she found surprised her: fathers trump mothers.

She, Nadya Pancsofar and other co-authors videotaped middle-class parents and children at various ages, starting at infancy and going up to age 3, to figure out whether a mother’s or father’s language was more closely related to a child’s later language development. “We thought that fathers might contribute a little bit. But what we found was actually it was the father’s number of different words that he spoke in that session that predicted better language at 36 months. A mother’s language was not significant at all.”

They repeated a similar study in poorer, rural regions of North Carolina and three in Pennsylvania. The moms and dads were both “reading” from wordless picture books. Again, the researchers found the same thing. A father’s vocabulary was more predictive of a child’s later language development.


Vernon-Feagans said they don’t really know why yet, but they have a few hypotheses. First, mothers are extremely sensitive to their children’s needs and development, so they spend a lot of time talking to the children throughout the day about what they see and what they are doing. But fathers are more likely to bring things from the outside in, she said, and use new vocabulary. “The child hasn’t heard it before and it may be above their level, but that can be good and really improve language development later.”

Research also shows, she said, that men are generally more playful. “When I go see my grandchildren, they run right to my husband who … throws them in the air and rolls around with them,” she said. “I read them books. I’m not as much fun as he is.” And so it follows that kids are more attentive to what their dads are saying.

So what do these findings tell us? Vernon-Feagans said people need to recognize that dads play important roles in early childhood development. “Childcare workers, teachers who usually talk to the mom need to remember that these dads are involved and we need to include them more,” she said.

In sum, the research proved what many of us already knew: “Dads are kind of silly, and I think they are very good at engaging their children.”

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