Parental Influence on a Child’s Language Development

We have a toddler who is just learning to talk - is there anything important we should know about the respective ways in which moms and dads influence speech development? I understand that word use is one of the key areas in which men and women differ, and I'm interested to know what this implies about the distinctive roles my spouse and I are likely to play in helping our child's language development.

As a matter of fact, mothers and fathers do have unique and complementary roles to play in the wonderfully complex and multi-layered process of transmitting speech skills to their children. This is just another reason why it’s so beneficial for kids to grow up in a home where there are two parents present-one of each sex.

We all know that children pick up speech from the people who are around them day in and day out-brothers, sisters, grandparents, extended family and friends as well as mother and father. But it should come as no surprise that parents occupy a prominent position in this constellation of influences. Infants quickly learn to tell the difference between Mom’s voice and Dad’s. This takes place during the earliest weeks of life, and it would be fair to say that it’s one of the first and most important ways a child begins to imbibe a sense of the basic differences between the sexes.

What are the distinctive features of those two voices? There are a number of ways in which they present baby’s ear with a pleasantly balanced set of mutually contrasting sounds. Dad’s is louder and deeper and usually more definitive and directive in tone. Moms, on the other hand, tend to speak softly and are more reassuring in their speech. During play and interaction with the child, mothers tend to soothe and settle, dads to stimulate and excite.

As the child grows, research indicates that fathers are more likely to take on a teaching role. They adopt a forthright tone and manner, use specialized words, and subject their kids to long and detailed explanations and sets of instructions. They may also make references to past events and abstract concepts beyond the child’s level of development. In contrast, mothers tend to speak to kids on their own level. Their style of communication is simpler and more affectionate. Mom’s way builds up a secure and close connection between parent and child. Dad’s way may have its drawbacks, but on the positive side it has the potential to provide children with periodic vocabulary lessons. In this connection it’s worth mentioning that children who grow up with a father in the home tend to be more advanced in terms of vocabulary development.

We should add that when it comes to language, fathers have unique and important contributions to make to the lives of both boys and girls. Girls learn from their dads how to interact with men. Boys, on the other hand, discover what it means for a man to treat a woman with respect, honor, and courtesy. This is just another way in which sex distinctions figure significantly in the overall process of raising healthy and well-balanced children.

There are occasions, of course, when some of the “vocabulary” kids pick up from those around them is less than healthy and desirable. Both Mom and Dad need to assume responsibility for teaching their children that this kind of speech won’t be tolerated. Naturally, you can’t completely shield your kids from hearing bad language. When they do, avail yourself of the opportunity to show your disapproval with a look or a few well-chosen words. Remember, too, that cuss-words aren’t the only kind of language that can be considered “corrupt” or “unedifying.” Unkind and cutting comments are just as hurtful and damaging as obscenities.

If you’d like to talk about these ideas at greater length with a member of our staff, call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department for a free consultation.


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