Financial strain may suppress speech between parents and children, UC Berkeley lab finds

Photo of mother and daughter
Nenad Stojkovic/Creative Commons
Nenad Stojkovic under CC BY-SA 2.0 A study from the UC Berkeley Language and Cognitive Development Lab explores the "word gap" between families who are experiencing financial strain and those who are not.

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UC Berkeley researchers found preliminary evidence for financial scarcity placing strain on parents in a way that decreases conversations with their children.

According to campus associate professor of psychology Mahesh Srinivasan, children from higher-income families will hear millions of words more than children from lower-income families by preschool, creating a “word gap.”

While researchers have debated the magnitude of the difference, studies have shown a connection between the number of words parents speak to their children and their vocabulary growth, literacy, school readiness and academic performance in school, Srinivasan said.

Srinivasan noted that this finding has led to parenting interventions built on the idea that lower-income parents lack parenting knowledge. Srinivasan, lead author and UC Berkeley doctoral candidate Monica Ellwood-Lowe and current University of Chicago postdoctoral researcher Ruthe Foushee tested a different explanation and published their findings in Developmental Science in July, according to Srinivasan and a UC Berkeley press release.

As part of the Language and Cognitive Development Lab, the team hypothesized that parents spoke less to their children because of financial strains. Stressors of dangerous neighborhoods and access to food moved the focus away from individual parents’ issues, according to Srinivasan, who is the senior author of the paper.

“Our research is really about shifting the focus of attention toward how we can support parents and away from what parents are doing wrong, potentially,” Ellwood-Lowe said. “It comes from a belief that we have, which is not empirically tested, that parents are generally trying to be the best parent they can be.”

The team conducted two studies. The first, an experimental study, randomly assigned parents to reflect on either recent experiences of scarcity or general experiences, according to Ellwood-Lowe.

The group assigned to reflect on scarcity talked slightly less with their children. The parents who reflected on financial strain consistently spoke less with their children than the other parents did, despite differences in education level and income.

The finding was exploratory, as not all of the parents reflecting on financial scarcity were engaging with severe experiences, Srinivasan added. In the second study, the team used a real-world database and found decreased speech at the end of the month.

Srinivasan noted that he was surprised to find that this effect was stronger in higher socioeconomic backgrounds.

“One hope of this sort of line of research is to say anybody, regardless of their personal characteristics, put into this position would have this kind of consequence in terms of how they interact with their kids,” Srinivasan said. “So we need to make sure that parents are not put in this position.”

A possible solution would be to provide cash transfer programs to parents, the effect of which his lab is preparing to study, Srinivasan noted. He added that cultural differences, school systems and how children adapt need to be considered.

For Foushee, the “word gap” represents just one story about the value of language.

“As a speaker, I would sooner forget half of my vocabulary than how to craft a joke, appreciate poems or songs, take a turn in conversation, or apologize or express condolences,” Foushee said in an email. “As a society member, I’m not sure that knowing a lot of English words and thriving in school should be the same thing.”

Contact Andie Liu at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @andiemliu.