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Parents' financial troubles may affect communication with kids, study finds

Experts say kids’ speech development could be affected by lower family incomes

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Photo (c) Oscar Wong - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the University of California at Berkeley explored how parents’ financial stress may impact their kids’ speech development. 

According to their findings, parents who are struggling financially are less likely to communicate with their children. They say children who come from high-income families are more likely to hear a greater number of words during their peak speech development years, while children from low-income families are more likely to hear fewer words. 

“We were interested in seeing what happens when parents think about or experience financial scarcity and found evidence that such strain could suppress their speech to their children,” said researcher Mahesh Srinivasan. “Our results suggest that parenting training may not be sufficient to close the academic achievement gap without addressing the broader issue of income inequality.” 

The impact of financial insecurity on children’s development

The researchers conducted two experiments in this study to determine how families’ financial status impacted their interactions with their children. The first experiment included more than 80 parents; half of the group was asked to describe a time in their lives when they experienced financial hardships, while the other half discussed different topics. Afterward, the team observed how the parents in each group interacted with their three-year-old children. 

The second experiment had children wear devices known as talk pedometers, which tracked the conversations going on around them. This allowed the researchers to understand how frequently parents were interacting with their children and also how well the children were able to speak back to their parents. 

“Because we had recordings from the same parents at different times of the month, we could essentially use parents as their own controls,” said researcher Monica Ellwood-Lowe. “This allowed us to really pinpoint differences in their speech patterns when they were more or less likely to be experiencing financial strain, independent of any of their own personal characteristics.” 

In both instances, parents were less likely to talk to their children when they were struggling with their finances. The second experiment showed that conversations dwindled around the time of the month when parents were waiting on paychecks. Ultimately, the researchers learned that children who had fewer conversations with their parents were also less likely to speak as many words themselves. 

Supporting low-income families

The researchers say they’re concerned about the long-term impacts of these findings -- particularly for children from low-income families. 

The team says these children may be interacting a lot less frequently with their parents ff there is never a break from financial stress. Ultimately, that could put them behind in terms of development. However, the researchers also explained that parents need more resources to best support their families so that children are adequately cared for. 

“This research doesn’t mean that children whose parents are struggling financially are doomed to have smaller vocabularies,” said Ellwood-Lowe. “The takeaway here really is just the importance of making sure parents have the resources they need to parent.” 

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