A new study published in the journal Child Development shows that a mother’s race plays no role in the amount and quality of the words she uses with her children or with the language skills her children later develop.
However, the researchers found that a mother’s education does play a significant role in both the quality of her language and in the child’s subsequent language development.
The findings are important because previous studies have shown that children of parents with lower socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels have lower language skills when entering school. However, those studies included parents with higher incomes who were primarily white and parents with lower incomes who were primarily black.
As a result, educators and other child professionals were not able to distinguish between race, income or education as the cause of the language gap until now.
“Over time, there were summaries of this early research that misrepresented the data. Many of these summaries suggested that black and African American mothers, especially those with lower-incomes, provided less and lower quality language to their children than white mothers,” said Lynne Vernon-Feagans, Ph.D., from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.
“Our findings represent a big shift from previous thinking that race-based differences in maternal language play a significant role in children’s language outcomes,” said Mary Bratsch-Hines, Ph.D., of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.
The study, which is part of the Family Life Project, tracked 1,292 children from birth. The researchers evaluated the language use of similarly-educated black and white mothers to measure the amount and complexity of words they use with their infants and young children.
The team assessed the interactions between mothers and their children during four picture book sessions in the home between the ages of 6 and 36 months. They found that mothers with more education were more likely to use a greater quantity and complexity of language with their young children compared to those with less education.
Overall, maternal education was strongly associated with children’s later language at school age regardless of maternal race, and the mothers’ early language input quality and complexity were even more related to children’s later language at school age.
The new findings will help improve parent, teacher and school system efforts by shaping their understanding of the importance of maternal education for both black and white children and allowing experts to focus available efforts and resources in better ways to improve child outcomes.