Father’s Employment Status and Extended Family Members Vital to Children’s Language Growth, Says Rutgers–Camden Researcher

By Tom McLaughlin

A rich language and literacy environment for children at home, explains Rutgers University–Camden researcher Rufan Luo, can have a wide range of lifelong learning, cognitive, and social benefits.

Smiling young father reading a book for his girls

According to Luo, her finding suggests that employed fathers don’t just provide financial support, but also children’s learning experiences.

According to her latest research, says the assistant professor of psychology, two previously undetected factors could be predictive indicators of this future success.

For starters, Luo explains, she and co-researcher Catherine Tamis-LeMonda found a correlation between book sharing frequency and the employment status of fathers.

“Employed fathers engaged in book sharing with their kids more often than unemployed fathers,” says Luo, who notes that she found no such correlation between mothers’ employment statuses and book sharing frequency. “This suggests that these employed fathers don’t just provide financial support, but also children’s learning experiences.”

Secondly, Luo says, she found that there was a negative association between parents’ education levels and children’s engagement in these activities with other family members. In other words, the less educated that parents are, the less likely that children are to engage in these activities with their parents – a predictable correlation – but more likely to engage in these activities with other family members, such as their siblings and grandparents.

“These family members really play a compensating role in supporting children in those situations where there is a lack of parental involvement,” she says.

Luo and Tamis-LeMonda, a developmental psychologist and professor of applied psychology at New York University, detail these groundbreaking revelations in their forthcoming study, “Preschool Book-Sharing and Oral Storytelling Experiences in Ethnically Diverse, Low-Income Families,” to be published this spring in Early Child Development and Care.

Luo explains that those children who have frequent or rich book sharing experiences also tend to have rich oral storytelling experiences

According to the Rutgers–Camden researcher, they focused their study on book sharing and oral storytelling activities in low-income families from four ethnic minority groups – Mexican, Dominican, Chinese, and African American – in New York City.

Book sharing, she explains, extends beyond what most people would call reading a book with a caregiver.

“Sharing a book is not just about reading text from a book; it is talking about what is happening, connecting the book with a child’s personal life, and asking questions,” says Luo. “You want a child to contribute to the narrative.”

Oral storytelling, she continues, is when a caregiver tells a story without any support from printed materials – a common activity in ethnic minority communities with rich oral storytelling traditions.

“The content of oral stories can be lots of things – personal stories, family histories, or cultural value lessons that teach something about cultural beliefs,” says Luo. “It is very useful to convey cultural values from one generation to the next.”

According to Luo, prior to the study, the researchers assumed that those children who failed to participate in book sharing activities due to various reasons – perhaps they couldn’t find a book in their native language or their parents couldn’t read – would instead participate in more oral storytelling experiences. However, they discovered that not to be the case. Instead, they found a positive association between children’s book sharing and oral storytelling experiences.

“Those children who have frequent or rich book sharing experiences also tend to have rich oral storytelling experiences,” says Luo. “Conversely, those kids who didn’t get book sharing experiences also didn’t get many oral storytelling experiences. In essence, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This really puts these children lacking in these experiences at risk.”

According to Luo, their findings have important implications for early intervention efforts. For instance, she says, special attention should be given to those children whose parents have low education levels and/or are not living with their fathers. Furthermore, intervention efforts – along with additional research – should extend beyond parental involvement and involve other family members, who can play an integral role.

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