UNC researcher: Dads make bigger difference in language development

Jun. 14, 2014 @ 03:18 PM

Mothers matter in every aspect of a child’s development.

But research by a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor suggests that fathers tend to have more influence on a child’s language development.
Lynne Vernon-Feagans at UNC teamed with Nadya Pancsofar at the College of New Jersey to study middle-class and poor, rural families in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
“What we found is that the father’s language was more highly correlated to children’s later language than the mother’s,” Vernon-Feagans said.
They studied more than 1,200 infants in households that had two parents. In most households studied, both parents worked. Researchers documented the families when the children were 6 months old, 15 months old and 3 years old. The family interactions and play periods were recorded and transcribed.
“We were sure fathers would make a difference, but we didn’t think they’d turn out to be more important in language development than mothers,” she said.
She’s not sure why it worked out that way, but speculated that it could have something to do with the way the different parents communicate with the child.
Mothers might use words that are readily understood by the child, Vernon-Feagans said. “Dads might use different kinds of words, more complicated words.”
Decades ago, mothers stayed at home while fathers worked and perhaps didn’t spend as much time with the children.
“Now fathers are quite involved in their children’s lives,” she said.
This finding means teachers and child-care workers ought to pay more attention to fathers when it comes to a child’s educational growth, she said.
“Especially in dual-earner families, it’s important to focus on the role of dads,” she said.
The research was highlighted in Paul Raeburn’s book “Do Fathers Matter? What Science is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked.” That book was showcased on the “Today” show’s website last week in advance of Father’s Day.
“Because fathers usually spend less time with their children, they are more of a novelty,” Raeburn wrote. “That makes them more interesting playmates. When (Vernon-Feagans) 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.”

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