A new study shows that the "word gap"—toddlers in low-income households knowing 30 million fewer words than kids from wealthier backgrounds—has more to do with financial strain than parenting style.

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Parenting books have long touted the importance of talking, reading, and interacting with your kids and the ways it can boost your baby's brainpower as they grow and develop. However, it might be difficult for some parents to make regular time to engage with their children—especially when they might be struggling to provide for them.

An image of two piggy banks.
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The term "word gap" comes from a study done in the 1990s called "Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children," which found that kids in low-income households heard 30 million fewer words by the time they were three years old than kids from high socioeconomic backgrounds. The study heavily influenced how children were taught (especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds) and suggests that vocabulary level is a predictor of high academic achievement.

The accuracy of this heavily-cited study that coined the phrase "word gap" has been debated a lot in recent years, one of the main arguments being that the study contained inherent racial bias, and did not account for different languages and parenting styles.

A recent study from the University of California, Berkeley provides some much-needed context and nuance to this issue. The study found that parents experiencing financial distress or scarcity talked less to their children—and the research shows that the "word gap" actually has more to do with a lack of resources rather than quality of parenting. Here's what the study and its researchers have to say about how financial status affects how parents engage with children—and ideas on how parents can be better supported.

The term 'word gap' is problematic—children can learn language in more ways than one.

The researchers behind the Berkeley study believe that the term "word gap," and its implications of academic success (or lack thereof, rather), are problematic.

"It focuses on perceived deficits in parents and children from disadvantaged backgrounds," says Mahesh Srinivasan, the study's senior author and professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. "This has several unfortunate consequences. For example, in potentially leading parents to feel blamed and teachers to assume that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are incapable of high achievement," explains Srinivasan.

Sure, talking to your child does help them learn more words, but it isn't the only way for them to learn language—and it is, in fact, "in no way necessary for healthy language development," says Monica Ellwood-Lowe, the study's lead author at UC Berkeley. Ellwood-Lowe says that all children can have rich vocabularies regardless of how much they're spoken to at home—and they'll continue learning new words throughout their lives.

The way the word gap has been studied and talked about in relation to doing well in school is limited, says Srinivasan, and may be privileging kids with certain language backgrounds over others. Kids learn language and express it in different ways—how much (or how little) you talk to your child in their first years is not the catch-all method for helping them learn words.

Parents talk to their kids less when money is tight.

The Berkeley study was inspired by the lack of contextual, inclusive studies on the issue of the word gap that actually focus on the why.

"It struck us that what was missing from both the academic and popular conversation was whether poverty and structural inequality itself...could itself impact how parents engage with their children, regardless of parents' own level of parenting knowledge or effort," says Srinivasan. He says financial scarcity, food and housing insecurity, exposure to toxins, and racism are all forms of systemic inequalities that can affect how much parents engage with their kids.

Even financial mindset influences how much parents speak to their kids. The team tested this particular theory by asking one group of parents to write about several things they did not have enough of in the past week—and a second group to simply write down a few activities they did. Then, the team observed both groups of parents interacting with their three-year-old children. The results showed that parents in the group that had written about what they didn't have enough of spoke less to their child when compared the parents who had just written about their activities.

Through another study, the researchers analyzed recordings of conversations between young children and their parents, with the help of a device that counts how many different words are being spoken. As the researches had predicted, results showed that parents interacted with their kids a lot less towards the end of the month—when bills are due and paychecks are further away. The researchers found that this was true with parents who otherwise engaged with their children regularly, as well as with parents who had more money and educational resources.

"This ,again suggests that, over and above a parents' individual traits or abilities, financial strain may impact how parents speak to their children," says Srinivasan.

Parents deserve less blame, and more resources.

What parents really need—more than parenting advice—are resources. The study suggests that financial help for parents who need it (such as the Child Tax Credit advance payments) can really impact the way parents engage with their kids.

"When parents are strapped for basic resources, there are a lot more important things we could give them to both make their lives easier and promote a child's healthy development—like simply giving them resources," says Ellwood-Lowe.

Other resources could include financial literacy and assistance that is inclusive of different languages and backgrounds, says financial therapist and behavioral economist George Blount. He says most financial documents—such as loan and credit card documents and investment disclosures—are written at a college or post-graduate level, and there is a lack of guidance for making financial decisions for those who need it the most.

"The gap between disclosure and comprehension must be addressed to minimize inequalities of multicultural and multigenerational households," says Blount.

The researchers of the Berkeley study do have a key takeaway for parents—and it's to keep doing what they're doing. "We hope parents focus instead on pursuing what they need so that they, as parents, can parent to the best of their ability," says Ellwood-Lowe. This past year, parents around the country (and the world) have dealt with loss of jobs and childcare and having to juggle it all during a pandemic. We should be a lot less critical of parenting styles—and a lot more focused on providing parents with the right kind of support so they can care for themselves and their families.