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Fathers' speech to their children: perfect pitch or tin ear?

This paper reviews the literature on the similarities and differences in child-directed speech (CDS) employed by fathers and mothers. The contributions that fathers are thought to make to their children's language and communicative development are discussed, and factors influencing the findings and interpretations of empirical studies of fathers' CDS are presented.

Key Words: child directed speech, fathers' contribution, children's language development


The purpose of this paper is to review research findings as they pertain to fathers' verbal interactions with their young children to determine whether they provide unique language learning models for their youngsters. The impetus to this review is the ever-expanding concern for the condition of the American family. These concerns are manifest in the national preoccupation with the quality of public educational institutions and violence in the schools and with the omnipotence and possible deleterious influences of mass media. Research has revealed the importance of the family in the overall intellectual, social, and emotional development of children (Berger, 2001). The role of the father in the family has become of increasing concern to professionals from many disciplines.

Pleck and Pleck (1997) traced the major stages in the evolution of fatherhood in the American family: the stem patriarch, the distant breadwinner, what the authors called the "dads" period, and the co-parent. The role of fathers in their children's lives has become of great concern in the past few years even as the nature and structure of the family have undergone increasing stresses (Lewis & O'Brien, 1987; Pleck, 1997). Griswold (1993) claimed that the father's role in the family has become more confused as a result of women's increasing participation in out-of-home work responsibilities. Two wage-earner families are now in the majority and, in most middle- and working-class families, two incomes are necessary to maintain a modest standard of living. Economic factors are responsible for stealing time from fathers, mothers, and their children. Factors such as a high divorce rate, step families, a lower ratio of married men, fatherhood in the absence of marriage, and court bias in assigning child custody to mothers have all conspired to stress the father-child relationship (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992). Some studies suggest that 30-40% of preschool children live at one time or another without their fathers (Mott, 1990).

Despite these challenges, there has been a clear increase in paternal engagement, accessibility, and responsibility over the past three decades (Pleck, 1997). Further, recent statistics suggest that fathers' status as second-class parents may be changing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2001), the period between 1990 and 2000 saw a dramatic 51% increase in the number of single-parent households headed by fathers, compared to a 15% increase in single-mother households over the same period. Even with this asymmetric increase, however, single-father households are still outnumbered by single-mother households by a ratio of 5 to 1. Specifically, about 5% of all U.S. households are now headed by single fathers, compared to 25% for single-parent mothers (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001).

Developmentalists have been interested for years in the question of whether fathers and mothers differ in the ways they approach their children and how fathers, in particular, may influence their children's lives (Snarey, 1993). Lamb (1997) provides an excellent overview of recent research on the topic. Lewis (1997), after reviewing the literature on parental roles and their influence with their preschool children, concluded that research "... has tended to confirm the similarity between parents in the nurturance they report, their disciplinary regimes and their teaching styles in various observational settings" (p. 126).

Lamb, Pleck, Charnov, and Levine (1987) distinguished three major components of a father's role in families: interaction (direct contact with children), availability (being present and available whether or not high degrees of interaction are present), and responsibility (providing for the financial, social, educational, and health needs of their children). This review will focus on the interaction dimension, focusing specifically on the way that fathers interact verbally with their children.


Fathers' verbal interaction with their children is interesting for a variety of reasons. In the first place, knowledge of such interactions would add to our understanding of the fathers' contribution to the language development of children. The overwhelming bulk of studies of parents and their language-learning children have focused on mothers' role in the process. Fathers, by comparison, have been severely under-studied (Abkarian & Dworkin, 2001). One of the purposes of this paper, therefore, is to review the literature on mother-father similarities and differences in verbal style.

Second, research over the past three decades has shown that boys and girls, beginning in preschool, are quite different from one another in their language-learning abilities, in the skills that underlie language learning, and in the way that language is employed in real-world interactions (Ely & McCabe, 1993; Fenson, Dale, Reznick, Bates, Thai, & Pethick, 1994; Klann-Delius, 1981; Leaper, 1991; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974; Nelson, 1973; Ramer, 1976; Sheldon, 1997). In short, in most areas where boy-girl differences in language learning (psycholinguistic) and processing (neurolinguistic) have been found, girls have shown a distinct developmental advantage. The question that arises is whether these differences have their roots in biology (e.g., fetal hormone environments, brain structures, brain wiring) (Halpern, 2000; Ruble & Martin, 1998; Shaywitz et al., 1995), are more likely the result of environmental factors and influences, or stem from some combination of nature and nurture.

Third, the talking styles of men and women have been of interest to both lay and professional persons. Maltz and Borker (1982), Holmes (1999), and popular publications, such as Deborah Tannen's book, You Just Don't Understand (1990), have highlighted these differing dialects of English (called "genderlects") as spoken by men and women. Tannen focused on the source of miscommunication that frequently occurs between men and women, suggesting that misunderstandings result from differences in the way English is spoken by each sex. Briefly, Tannen uses the terms "rapport talk" (for females) and "report talk" (for males) to contrast fundamental differences in the underlying purposes of adult speech. Adult female genderlect is described in many ways: communal, affiliative non-confrontational, indirect, and standard in form. Verbal behaviors related to these descriptors include the presence of politeness markers, tag questions, verbal hedging, euphemistic and supportive-responsive speech, inclusive reference, and indirect speech. Female speech is also more likely to be precise in its articulation and is less likely to include syntactic violations. Nonverbal characteristics include more social gazing, facial expressiveness, and expression of emotions (Hall, 1998). Adult male genderlect is often characterized as being more laconic, more overtly confrontational, more likely to be embedded in activity, more direct, less supportive-responsive, and more likely to include jocular teasing (Tannen, 1994). If men and women do, in fact, use different dialects in their interactions with one another, such verbal differences may extend to interactions with their children.

There are a host of entities that may serve as language models to young children including mothers, siblings, peers, daycare workers, baby sitters, even television. But what about fathers? The purpose of this review is to address this question by surveying the literature on fathers' language with children to determine if they make a special contribution to their language-learning offspring. Differences, if present, may reveal something about the nature of fathers and the special contributions they may make in the child-rearing process. Because fathers appear to develop stronger interest in their children during the preschool years compared to infancy (Lamb, 1997), because this is the period of most rapid language development in children, and because this period has been most widely studied, this review will focus on studies conducted with children six years old and younger.


Early studies of parental speech tended to focus on the sounds, sentence-types, and vocabulary word-types employed in CDS. Rondal (1980) and Fash and Madison (1981) found that both parents simplified their speech when addressing children. Others reported no differences in speech rate (Hummell, 1982) or vocal speech features (Trehaub et al., 1997). Fathers and mothers were found to be similar in the number of verbs employed; in the proportion of verbs, modifiers, and pronouns used; and in the frequency of declarative and interrogative sentences directed to children (Golinkoff & Ames, 1979; Hummell, 1982; Kavanaugh & Jen, 1981; Lewis & Gregory, 1987). Bernstein-Ratner (1988) found no differences between fathers and mothers in vocabulary diversity (using Type-Token Ratios), while Grief and Gleason (1980) reported parental similarities in encouragement in the use of polite forms ("please," "good-bye") by their children. Neither Black and Logan (1995) nor Welkowitz, Bond, Feldman, and Tota (1990) found differences in the way parents took conversational turns with their children, in the relevance of parent's comments, or in their tendencies to interrupt their children.

In contrast to the aforementioned results, a number of recent studies have found mother-father differences in CDS. In part, these findings have arisen as more researchers have begun to focus on the social uses of language by parents (as distinguished from the more structurally oriented approaches to language analysis undertaken earlier).

Fathers have been found to use fewer pitch fluctuations with their infant children (Papousek, Papousek, & Haekel, 1987). They are less talkative, both in numbers of words and amount of time spent speaking (Davidson & Snow, 1996; Hladik & Edwards, 1984) especially in the home versus the laboratory setting (Killarney & McCluskey, 1981; Leaper, Andersen, & Sanders, 1998; McLaughlin, White, McDevitt, & Raskin, 1983). Some have speculated that less talkativeness by fathers may be because they are less sensitive to their children's attentional focus (Power, 1985). Others have suggested that the impression of less talking by fathers arises from the activities in which parents and their children are tested. In free-play circumstances, fathers are more likely to engage in active physical play with their children, rather than in ritualized/thematic play of the type preferred by mothers, (e.g., "playing store"), that is more conducive to talk (Bronstein, 1988; Fagot, 1997; Fagot & Hagan, 1991; Ross & Taylor, 1989; Trevarthen, 1974).

Contrary to earlier findings of word-use similarities, fathers have been found to use a more varied vocabulary and to use more rare and abstract words with their youngsters than do mothers (Bernstein-Ratner, 1988; Gleason, 1975; Masur & Gleason, 1980). In the realm of syntax differences, a number of writers have found that fathers are more likely to direct questions to their children (McLaughlin, Schultz, & White, 1980; McLaughlin et al., 1983; Walker & Armstrong, 1995). Many of these questions are wh-questions (who, where, why) as differentiated from mothers' preference for yes/no questions. There has been speculation that increased question use by fathers is reflective of communication breakdowns, which occur with more frequency in father-child discourse. That is, if a parent fails to understand what a child has said or what a child has meant, a parent might request a clarification from the child ("What?", "Where were you going?", "Can you say that again?", "Who is Ethan?"). Requests of this sort are much more common among father-child pairs (Mannle & Tomasello, 1987; Tomasello, Conti-Ramsden, & Ewert, 1990). Fathers are also less likely to continue a child's topic in conversations and less likely than mothers to acknowledge their children's contributions ("That's nice," "Oh?") (Hladik & Edwards, 1984; Leaper, Anderson, & Sanders, 1998; Mannle & Tomasello, 1987).

Fathers are also more likely to use sentence types involving unmitigated requests or directives. Unmitigated requests are those in which speakers do not soften their requests by using a word ("please") or changing the sentence form ("Hand me the screwdriver, will you?" or "Is the screwdriver at your end of the bench?"). The least mitigated form of a request or directive is the imperative sentence, "Put that down" or "Throw that to me." More frequent use of imperatives by fathers has been interpreted by many writers as evidence that fathers are not only more direct (unmitigated) in their speech to children, but also more demanding and controlling in their interactional styles (Andrews & Bernstein-Ratner, 1987; Malone & Guy, 1982; McLaughlin, White, McDevitt, & Raskin, 1983; Walker & Armstrong, 1995). This is not a universally accepted view, however. To Gallaway and Woll (1994) equating imperative use with intrusive behavior is both "false ... and oversimplification" (p. 203).

In a study at odds with many of the preceding results, Davidson and Snow (1996) studied parents and slightly older children (mean age 5.3 years). These authors found that mothers exceeded fathers on nearly every dimension of speech that was studied. Mothers talked more and were more linguistically complex in both dyadic (one-on-one) and whole-family settings. The authors speculated that these results may have been colored by the characteristics of both the parents and children who participated in the study. The children were not only older than those usually studied, but they also averaged in the top 5% for their age group on a test of vocabulary comprehension. Among the 24 parents in this study, 19 had doctoral or master's degrees.

Numerous studies demonstrate that preschool age boys and girls incorporate communicative features that are isomorphic to those of adult male and female communication styles. Although a complete review is beyond the scope of this paper, a few items are offered as examples. For instance, girls evidence more smiling behavior and eye contact with their interlocutors than boys (Benenson, 1993; Fogel, 1984). Boys show more teasing behavior and greater use of language for purposes of humor, including wisecracks (Lampert, 1996; Mooney, Creeser, & Blatchford, 1991), a pattern similar to that of adult males. Gifts show greater word fluency abilities than boys (Halpern & Wright, 1996; Hines, 1990), echoing the robust advantage found among adult females over males. Girls are more likely to use mitigated forms of language when prohibiting others (Nohara, 1996) and use mitigation in settling disputes (DeHart, 1996; Miller, Danaher, & Forbes, 1986; Sheldon, 1990, 1992). Preschool girls talk more about emotions and are more attentive to social cues than same-age boys (Cervantes & Callahan, 1998; Eagley & Crowley, 1986). Like adult women, girls are more likely to make reference to past conversations than are boys (Ely & McCabe, 1993) and show a preference for dyadic communication, face-to-face conversation, and spatial closeness when conversing (Tannen, 1994).


Barton and Tomasello (1994) summarized fathers' communicative characteristics with their children in the following way. First, they are less communicatively responsive; fathers are more likely to ignore overtures from their children. Second, they are less conversationally supportive; fathers use fewer devices to initiate and maintain conversations. Third, they are less conversationally competent; fathers encounter more breakdowns in conversations, they have fewer successful repairs of conversations, and they have shorter conversations with their children. Fourth, fathers tend to be more directive of the topics of conversations and of their children's behaviors. For these reasons, fathers have been called challenging and difficult conversational partners for children.

After surveying data on fathers' and mothers' CDS, many authors have concluded that parental behaviors cleave along the dimension called "fine-tuning." This term refers to the degree to which adult-child speech is complementary in length, complexity, and other dimensions. In Anglo-American middle-class populations, mothers' speech appears to be carefully tailored to the young child's current attentional focus, interest areas, past experiences, and importantly, to the child's own sentence length. In addition, mothers tend to be responsive to their children's conversational bids, they provide more feedback to their children, they are more likely to extend and elaborate upon their child's topics, and they employ vocabulary whose complexity mirrors that which children use in their own speech production.

While the above descriptions may seem to present fathers as something other than a positive communicative influence for children, some authors have postulated that fathers' CDS style may in fact have beneficial effects on children's abilities to interact with wider audiences (Barton & Tomasello, 1994; Gleason, 1975; Mannle & Tomasello, 1987). The bridge hypothesis, as it has come to be called, posits that fathers' CDS is closer in form to the untuned language and communication styles that children will encounter with interlocutors outside their immediate families. In these circumstances, children will have to accommodate to these less intimate partners by speaking more coherently and by clarifying misunderstandings with more skill. These other speakers usually will require children to make communicative adjustments of a type encouraged by and practiced with their fathers' less finely graded CDS.

There is some direct experimental support for the bridge hypothesis from studies of father-child speech. Supportive second-order evidence is based on the effects of specific language and communication forms found to occur more commonly in fathers' speech. For example, preschool children recall a greater number of past events when recollecting with their fathers (Reese, Haden, & Fivush, 1996). Fathers' communication style with 13-month-olds was found to predict advances in their children's vocabulary growth at age 20 months, while maternal style did not (Bornstein, Vibbert, Tal, & O'Donnell, 1992). Mannle and Tomasello (1987) used lagged correlations to compare children at 15 and 21 months of age. The authors reported a positive correlation between fathers' minimal acknowledgements of their children's utterances at age 15 months and these children's later ability to use nominal (rather than pronoun) forms. Children have been found to use longer, presumably more complex utterances with their fathers (Masur & Gleason, 1980; Rondal, 1980) and to use more advanced narratives with their fathers and unknown experimenters than with their mothers (Haden, Haine, & Fivush, 1997).

Indirect, secondary support for the bridge hypothesis comes from studies that have examined children's exposure to certain verbal forms that occur more frequently in the speech of fathers. In these investigations, father-child interactions are not studied. Rather, the verbal form itself is correlated with children's language advances. For instance, Barnes, Gutfreund, Satterly, and Wells (1983) discovered that the use of unmitigated directives by parents was positively correlated with children's language gains. Topic-extending questions by parents have shown to influence longer and more coherent narratives by their children (McCabe & Peterson, 1991). As reported earlier in this paper, fathers use both unmitigated directives and wh-questions (which could serve to extend children's topics) more frequently than do mothers. In a longitudinal study, Pan, Feldman, and Snow (1993) found that the length of sentences used by parents was positively associated with significant language growth among youngsters aged 14 to 32 months. It will be recalled that, compared to mothers, fathers' speech is less fine-tuned for length (i.e., fathers' sentences tended to be longer than those of their children).

In the area of vocabulary learning, Pan et al. (1993) also concluded that the number of different words used by parents was linked to children's advanced language performance. Beals (1997) reported that the use of rare vocabulary words by family members was positively related to more extended discourse by children at later ages. In related findings, both Beals and Tabor (1995) and Weizman (1995, cited in Snow, 1999) determined that the use of sophisticated vocabulary at mealtime was related to children's vocabulary scores in subsequent waves of data collection. Exposure to more abstract verbs (think, know) and the use of superordinate labels (animal, tool) at age two years has been linked to children's advanced skill in word-defining and word comprehension skills at age three (Watson, 1989). Again, as reported earlier in this review, research has shown that fathers' speech to children includes more frequent use of rare and abstract vocabulary words.


One of the special features of fathers' behavior with their children is the tendency for fathers to engage in verbal and nonverbal teasing with their children (Gleason, 1975; Hopper, Sims, & Alberts, 1983; Pecheux & Labrell, 1994). In fact, after reviewing scores of research articles on parent-child speech, we have found only one that studied or remarked in passing about teasing by mothers. Miller (1986) studied mothers of working-class background.

Teasing behavior is usually described in negative terms in the popular media, often considered to be synonymous with or a precursor to bullying. In fact, however, the scholarly literature describes both positive and negative forms of teasing. It has been defined in a number of ways, for example, as "... rapid alterations of metasignals which create and then remove doubt" (Reddy, 1991, p. 143). It has also been defined as "a diverse set of verbal and non-verbal actions that share in common a combining of the elements of aggression, humor, and ambiguity" (Shapiro, Baumeister, & Kessler, 1991, p. 460). Eisenberg (1986) described teasing more simply as mock insults. Teasing generally involves features of novelty, unpredictability, and cognitive destabilization. That is, teasing is a stimulus that contradicts previously fixed rules or expectations (Pecheux & Labrell, 1994).

Verbal teasing can involve nicknames and innuendo. Reports of verbal teasing by fathers have generally been limited to instances of jocular name-calling (e.g., "knuckle-head," "wise guy"). All of such reported instances of pejorative teasing have been directed to sons. It is of interest that non-verbal teasing by fathers has also been reported. For example, Pecheux and Labrell (1994) studied the play styles of mothers and fathers with their 16-month-old infants. Fathers teased their children by placing objects in the way of their children's goals or by physically redirecting them away from a desired goal or object.

There are indications of gender differences in the use of, response to, and acceptability of teasing behaviors. For example, in a study of teasing between romantic partners, men and women teased one another in similar ways, but women found that being the target of teasing was much more aversive (Keltner, Young, Heerey, Oeming, & Monarch, 1998). When asked, mothers deplore their husband's teasing interactions with their children (Pecheux & Labrell, 1994). Fathers' use of terms like "ding-a-ling" with their sons has been characterized as demeaning by some (usually female) language development researchers (Gleason, 1975).

While teasing may appear to be non-social and counterproductive behavior, fathers' teasing may serve positive purposes for the child (Reddy, 1991). In terms of cognitive development, teasing with its unpredictability can stimulate playfulness and vigilance. The destabilizing function of teasing may provoke cognitive growth in much the same way that fathers' lack of verbal fine-tuning can serve as a catalyst to advances in communicative competence. Teasing can be linked to the child's development of theory of mind. According to Stern (1985), successful recognition of teasing behavior requires the ability to correctly guess what is in the mind of the other person. Teasing may have a role in the development of other language skills as well. For example, Ortony, Turner, and Larson-Shapiro (1985) reported that inner-city children who engaged in playful insult-exchange games ("sounding" or "playing the dozens") were better able to comprehend metaphoric language. Teasing experience can also serve social purposes, as a vehicle by which males establish affiliation with one another. Tannen (1990) cites a number of examples whereby adult males demonstrate "honoring by grappling" (e.g., playing devil's advocate or picking holes in one another's arguments). All-boy groups are replete with forms of playful teasing: heckling, joking, or making mock threats (Maltz & Borker, 1982). Done in a friendly way, teasing can establish and reinforce group cohesion (Kyratzis & Guo, 1996). As a type of humor or verbal wit, teasing is a device for establishing and reordering social hierarchies (Keltner et al., 1998). Thus, "a child who cannot share jokes with other children or does not know how to tease or be teased, lacks important aspects of communicative competence" (Ely & Gleason, 1995, p. 267). In these many ways, fathers' teasing can prepare children (especially sons) for the give and take of teasing that underlies social affiliation, friendship rituals, and communicative patterns encountered with males outside the family.

Evidence suggests that fathers' nonverbal play behavior might also benefit children in unexpected ways. Compared to mothers, fathers' play behavior is more physical, boisterous, and complex (Fagot, 1997; Lamb, 1982; MacDonald & Parke, 1986) as well as more unpredictable and novel (Pecheux & Labrell, 1994). Even fathers' singing style with their children evidences unpredictability. Trehaub et al. (1997) found that while mothers tended to sing stereotypic, child-oriented, simple songs ("twinkle-twinkle" or "itsy bitsy spider"), fathers altered popular or folk songs, creating complex songs for their children. Fathers' play behavior is less likely to involve the thematic play (playing store, playing school) that is more typical of mothers. In many ways these behaviors echo fathers' verbal style with their children in its less scripted, less predictable character. Fathers' play style has been linked to infants' increased exploratory behavior, both in unfamiliar environments (Feldman, Greenbaum, Mayes, & Erlich, 1997) and with unfamiliar adults (Kromelow, Harding, & Touris, 1990).


This review was an overview of similarities and differences between maternal and paternal CDS. As indicated earlier the topic was grounded in the general theme of parental speech as an influence on the language learning of their children. Therefore, fathers' increasing involvement in their children's lives and fathers' use of special (different) styles of speaking was surveyed with the greater purpose of illuminating fathers' potential influence on their children's language and communicative development. However, a number of caveats must be mentioned that may weaken the broad picture of fathers' influence and the degree to which conclusions can be generalized.


First, in virtually none of the studies reviewed did the authors remark upon fathers' degree of involvement with their children. Fathers were usually identified as secondary caregivers with no other explication of the quantity of father-child interaction. One can only guess about the amount of exposure to fathers' speech experienced by their children.

Second, some research hints at the possibility that as research subjects, fathers are more vulnerable than mothers to interactive influences. That is, in the small number of studies addressing interactivity, fathers have admitted that their verbal and behavioral interactions with their children were influenced by the presence of an examiner (Russell, Russell, & Midwinter, 1992; Trehaub et al., 1997). In addition, there is evidence that in triadic circumstances (mother, father, and child) fathers are likely to take on the speaking styles of mothers (Hladik & Edwards, 1984; Pelligrini, Brody, & Stoneman, 1987). (In a study of South African parents, Liddell, Henzi, and Drew [1987] showed the reverse pattern.) Thus, the possibility exists that the speech styles identified in triadic research are not representative of fathers' usual modes of dyadic talk with their children.

Third, context-of-assessment variations may serve to color research outcomes. Studies of fathers' speech have been conducted in a variety of settings, which makes comparisons among results difficult. There is always the question about the representativeness of laboratory samples in the sense that parents may behave in ways that they think puts their verbal behavior in the best light. This is not (necessarily) meant to suggest duplicity. For example, more often than not, researchers fail to report the specific instructions given to parents about the purposes of the study. Oft times, however, in an effort to assure that parents are not self-conscious, researchers may orient parents to believe that the purpose of parent-child study is to examine child speech only. Then, if parents wish to be cooperative they may interpret their roles to be elicitors of their child's speech, acting in unnatural ways to stimulate children's verbalizations. Brachfeld-Child, Simpson, and Izenson (1988) reported behavior of this type in a study where fathers were found to exhort their nine-month old infants to complete a cube-in-cup task in an effort to successfully complete the task. (We have found that when collecting samples of parent-preschooler speech, naive but earnest parents nearly always direct a blizzard of questions at their children in an attempt to elicit speech, despite our repeated instructions to act in an everyday, "natural" way.)

Even in home-based sampling, parental-child speech has been collected in a range of contexts and activities, each of which may predispose a communicative bias of its own. All manner of context conditions have been explored and many are related to differences in parental language. Walker and Armstrong (1995), for example, examined parental language in care-giving situations and in play-oriented environments. Both parents, especially fathers, used a directive style in the former circumstances (bathing, feeding, dressing). Play situations were linked with a greater range of verbal characteristics, notably more frequent when question use by fathers. Lewis and Gregory (1987) found similar context-contingent language. Leaper and Gleason (1996) studied mothers' and fathers' speech with their children as they played with a take-apart toy car or played with props in a miniature grocery store. Both parents evidenced more information exchange with their children in the grocery scenario and were more directive while engaged in toy assembly. As noted elsewhere in this paper, mothers, unlike fathers, prefer to engage in thematic play with their children. In observational research studies, in which mothers and fathers have their choice of play activity, they are thus likely to gravitate to activities that are typically associated with very different communication styles.

Contexts outside the home have also been shown to influence parental behaviors. For example, Noller (1978) found that fathers (compared to mothers) spent less time and participated in less talk with their children while dropping them at daycare and preschools, yet fathers were more likely than mothers to interact with medical professionals when their children were hospitalized (Knafl & Dixon, 1984). Obviously, very different conclusions about fathers' CDS would be reached in these two outside-the-home contexts. Amato (1989) unobtrusively observed mothers' and fathers' caregiving gestures (touching, carrying, hand-holding) with their children in public places. In parks or at the zoo, the frequency of fathers' gestures matched that of mothers. In restaurants and malls, however, caregiving by mothers exceeded that of fathers by a wide margin.

Findings of this sort are reminiscent of Maccoby and Martin's (1983) Power Exchange Theory, which posits that different family members contribute different resources in varied contexts. Conversational and physical interchange would vary as a function of mothers' and fathers' "area of expertise" (e.g., food preparation versus changing a tire). Mothers are traditionally recognized as having child-related family resources; witness the "Dr. Mom" of many television commercials. Hardly any samples of fathers' speech with their children have been collected outside the mother's domain of the home or school (but see Diamond & Bond, 1983, for samples of father-child speech while fishing). What is needed are more examples of father-child verbal interaction collected in woodshops, at camp sites, at ball games and parks, or engaged in bicycle repair. Data of this type would go far in clarifying the quantity and quality of communication that fathers use with their children.

Fourth, preferred parenting style would also be likely to affect the language that parents employ with their children. Pratt, Kerig, Cowen, and Cowen (1992) studied parental attitudes and found that those parents rated as more authoritarian in their parenting style used directives to their children more frequently. Maccoby (1998) concluded that, as a rule, fathers are more willing to confront their children and to enforce discipline. Fathers' unmitigated directives are more likely to achieve compliance from preschool children (Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1982; Lytton, 1979). Russell and Russell (1987) and Perlmann (1984) reported that mothers' talk with their children had the flavor of bargaining or negotiation. Maccoby and Jacklin (1974) reported similar findings where mothers were more likely to engage in discussion or consultation with a resistant child. The point here is that there is need for greater exploration about the links between parenting style on the one hand and fathers' communicative style with children on the other.

Fifth, and closely related to issues of parenting and communicative style, are the behaviors (actual or anticipated) of their children. In most cultures (Whiting & Edwards, 1988) boys are expected to be more active, restless, and resistive to requests made by their parents (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992). Parents who experience and then anticipate such resistance might be expected to use more direct speech with their sons than their daughters, a finding confirmed by Fagot and Hagan (1991) and Gleason, Ely, Perlmann, and Narasimhan (1996). Preschool teachers also demonstrate a more-direct-with-boys pattern (Fagot, Hagan, Leinbach, & Kronsberg, 1985). Thus, the communicative characteristics of adult-child and parent-child speech are likely influenced by the sex of the child involved, and future research of fathers' CDS should not neglect to mention the sex of the child interlocutor.

Sixth, information about factors motivating fathers' speech to their children would be brought into sharper relief with studies of the way fathers address children who are not their progeny. Are fathers, for instance, more inclined to employ more mitigated (indirect) speech with other people's youngsters? If this were found to be so, it might be concluded that more direct speech with one's own children is an index of perceived attachment, familiarity, or responsibility. Answers to these questions might be derived from studies of male teachers and other professionals and variations in speech used with their students vis-a-vis their own children. We are currently undertaking a review in this area.

Seventh, nearly all studies reviewed herein have been conducted with white, college-educated, middle- to upper-middle-class English-speaking American parents. Language and communication interactions of parents are known to vary with parental education and socioeconomic status. For example, middle- and upper-middle-class parents tend to talk more and to reason with their children compared to working-class parents (Arriaga, Fenson, Cronan, & Pethick, 1998; Davidson & Snow, 1998; Hart & Risley, 1995; Hoff-Ginsberg & Tardif, 1995). They also tend to view themselves as co-parents, having equal and interchangeable roles in developing nurturant, androgynous offspring (Pleck & Pleck, 1997). Some critics have identified this as a cultural myth of the upper-middle-class, "... who now see [fathers] not of their class as culturally inferior because they have failed to adopt this new ideal" (Pleck & Pleck, 1997, p. 46). In addition to socioeconomic status, cultural and ethnic differences also influence beliefs about the nature of parental speech. Research with Asian populations, for example, indicates that the status of parents and that of boys and girls directly shapes the speech that is directed to children (Whiting & Edwards, 1988). For these reasons, generalizing from research generated among archetypical American populations (upper-middle class, of northern European extraction, politically and culturally liberal) to those fathers whose ethnic origins are in Africa, Asia, southern Europe, or the Levant must be viewed with caution, especially in light of the changing demographic characteristics of the American population.

Mother-father differences may also reflect adult male and female genderlect characteristics and preferred interaction styles. Tannen's (1990) distinction between rapport talk (as a female genderlect characteristic) and report talk (for males) may be informative here in distinguishing between mothers and fathers in their CDS. The gender-linked behaviors reviewed cartier have also been identified in fathers' and mothers' speech with their children. For example, adult females are likely to smile, to be indirect and polite, to provide supportive responses, to acknowledge the speech of others, to make references to past talk, to prefer dyadic interactions, to refer to emotions, to engage in more overall talk, and to use more yes-no questions with both other adults and with children. Adult males are more likely to tease and joke, to interrupt their children, to use direct (rather than mitigated) speech, to provide less feedback (acknowledgements and supportive responses), to talk less and be more tolerant of silence during shared activities, to challenge their child and adult speaking partners.


Virtually no researchers, however, make reference to similarities among adult-adult speech patterns by males and females when discussing CDS among fathers and mothers. The reasons for this omission seem puzzling until one considers the sociopolitical attitudes that may underlie many researchers' views of adult male and female language.

Many, mainly feminist language development researchers, disparage Tannen's notion of genderlect (i.e., that men and women speak two dialects of a single language). They contend that Tannen's dual cultures-dual dialects hypothesis is a false dichotomy and that drawing contrasts between men and women will resurrect and perpetuate notions of essentialism. This in turn undermines feminist positions of socially constructed gender and the goals of androgyny and political change (see Nadeau, 1996, and Wodak, 1997, for a review of feminist approaches on these issues and Eagley, 1996, Kleinfeld, 1998, and Sommers, 2000, on the politics of sex and gender in research). According to many feminists, men are not simply naive, unconscious speakers of a different dialect. Rather, adult males knowingly and purposefully use language to control and dominate those with whom they interact, especially women. Then, when feminist researchers evaluate father-child speech, were they to call attention to verbal features of adult male speech that are also present in fathers' CDS, two conclusions seem inevitable, neither of which may be politically palatable. The first conclusion would be that fathers use a consistent gender-linked way of speaking irrespective of their addressees (even when speaking with their children), not specifically molding it so as to dominate other adult males and females. This observation would lend support to the idea that male language is not consciously or specifically intended and designed to dominate others, a position at odds with dominant feminist ideology. Alternatively, a second interpretation could be that the adult male genderlect is used by fathers with their own children for the same supposed purposes for which it is used with other adult interlocutors: to control, to intimidate, to confront, to dominate. In this circumstance, feminist researchers would be in a position requiring them to characterize fathers as little more than bullies on the basis of the verbal forms they use when conversing with their children. It is for these reasons, it is maintained, that feminist researchers avoid comparisons and contrasts between male adult-adult speech patterns and fathers' CDS.

In keeping with a goal of minimizing inherent mother-father differences in CDS, some researchers have posited that such differences derive from the social roles that parents play (Becket-Bryant, 2001; Perlmann & Gleason, 1993). Specifically, parental differences are said to arise from the fact that, as secondary caregivers, fathers have less contact and less familiarity with their children, leading them to "... pressure the child to communicate more clearly and appropriately than would family members who know the child most intimately (e.g., mothers who are primary caregivers)" (Becker-Bryant, 2001, p. 232). Evidence for the social role hypothesis is scant, with Field (1978) often cited as research support (Lamb, 1997; Perlmann & Gleason, 1993). For instance, summarizing the Field study, Perlmann and Gleason stated that "... males who are primary caregivers use higher pitch, smile more and imitate their babies more than do males who are secondary caregivers" (p. 319). Given the importance attached to this study's findings and the social role hypothesis, it is worth describing in some detail. Field (1978) studied play behavior and vocalizations among 12 primary and 12 secondary caregiving fathers in a laboratory setting as they interacted with their four-month-old, later-born infants. The children were positioned in infant seats on a table while the researcher observed and videotaped father-infant interactions. Both groups of fathers used more high-pitched vocalizations with their infant daughters than with sons. Compared to secondary caregiving fathers, primary fathers were found to smile and to imitate their children more. However, primary fathers laughed less. There were no differences between the two father groups in amount of game-playing, in poking behaviors, in holding their infants' limbs, or in the amount of time they spent talking to their infants. Thus, in the most central language measure studied (i.e., amount of talking), the primary and secondary fathers did not differ. In another set of studies reflecting indirectly on the social role hypothesis, Lamb, Frodi, Frodi, and Hwang (1982) and Hwang (1986) studied Swedish couples in which the father took paternity leave to provide caregiving for their infants. Even among fathers having a heightened sense of their paternal role, the results revealed that mothers were more likely to vocalize, touch, hold, and display affection to their infants regardless of the fathers' direct involvement in childcare. These results suggest that, at least with infants, mothers and fathers show differences that transcend their primary or secondary caregiver roles.

Leaper, Anderson, and Sanders (1998) confirmed in a meta-analysis that the evaluation of parental speech is influenced by the sex of the investigator. These authors analyzed studies comparing mothers' and fathers' language with their children. Leaper et al. analyzed six aspects of parental communication: amount of talking, 17 studies; negative speech acts, nine studies; directive speech acts, 12 studies; informing speech acts, 12 studies; supportive speech acts, ten studies; and questions and requests for information, 16 studies. The authors attempted to determine whether the reported effect size difference (between mothers' and fathers' speech) was significantly related to the sex of the first author of the reviewed studies. Leaper et al. determined that author's sex was a significant moderating variable on two of the six speech act types (negative speech acts and directive speech acts) and that a non-significant trend of author's sex was present for a third type (informing speech acts). No differences were found for the remaining three parameters. The pattern of the results is noteworthy in that the more clear-cut, "quantitative" measures (amount of talking, number and type of requests) did not appear to be related to sex of author. However, the more interpretive, "controlling" speech act types (negative speech acts, directive speech acts) were apparently influenced by the author's sex.

Other observations demonstrate how interpretive bias may influence conclusions about fathers' and mothers' speech to their children. As reported earlier in this paper, fathers have been found to use imperative sentences ("wash your hands") more frequently than mothers. Such behavior is then cited as evidence of fathers' controlling or heavy-handed style with their offspring. Perlmann and Gleason (1993) stated, "It is difficult not to interpret these features of fathers' speech as related to men's more powerful status in society at large, as well as in traditional families ..." (p. 319). Irrespective of the merits of this conclusion, when mothers employ the same sort of verbal behavior, it does not elicit a similar, power-control interpretation by most writers. For instance, Perlmann (1984) studied parents' speech to toddlers at the dinner table. Not unexpectedly, a high number of socially driven prohibitions/admonitions about acceptable table manners were forthcoming from parents ("don't talk with food in your mouth, Billy"; "we don't wipe our hands on the tablecloth"). Mothers employed most of these imperative utterances. In other studies involving children with Down syndrome (Marfo, 1990; Tannock, 1988), mothers were found to use direct, imperative speech with greater frequency than were mothers of normally developing youngsters. Power and control are not ascribed to mothers in these studies. Thus, parental speech is interpreted differently (i.e., with stereotypic bias) depending on the sex of the parent-speaker, even though the speech being analyzed is serving the same purpose (control) and is often in the same verbal form (imperatives).

A final cautionary note about fathers' influence on their children's language development concerns two related issues: cultural differences in attitudes about the teachability of language and the role of input to language-learning children (see Owens, 2001, for a brief review of some cultural differences). In many non-Western cultures (not as child-centered as our own), parents take no special steps to assure that children are involved in family conversations, nor do they actively strive to stimulate and encourage speech from their children. Nonetheless, children in these cultures reach language development milestones at roughly the same ages as do their American counterparts. But even within the American experience, there remains disagreement about the timeliness, frequency, complexity, and basic role of input to the language-learning child. For example, many writers have characterized grammar and vocabulary learning as well-buffered or fast-mapping processes. By this it is meant that language can be learned by normally developing children with a modicum of exposure, without overt and continual instruction as such. Other writers, focusing on the sociolinguistic and communicative aspects of language learning, argue that parents play an active teaching role that is "... commonplace, conscious, and directive" (Becker, 1994). The point here is that, to the degree that controlled language exposure from the environment is more or less critical to language learning, then language input (such as fathers' speech) may play a greater or lesser role in children's language learning and use.


The research to date suggests that American, English speaking mothers provide verbal models that seem designed to support very young children's efforts to crack the code underlying their native language. (Although there are exceptions, as in the case of teaching social niceties, this is not a conscious behavior on the part of mothers.) Fathers provide speech models for their children that, on the surface, appear to be less solicitous and ill-designed to assist language learning by preschool children. This paper reviewed hypothetical explanations (the bridge hypothesis) and some evidence that suggests that fathers' speech serves a beneficial function either despite or because of its ostensibly challenging characteristics. The specific role of fathers' speech awaits more finely controlled research. Elusive, too, are models of language learning that account for the simultaneously positive effects of language that is at once well tailored by mothers and frequently discrepant, unpredictable, and challenging by fathers. Further research may also illustrate how exposure to fathers' unique interaction and language style may serve to stimulate advances in children's cognitive and social development as exemplified in fathers' teasing and play behavior.

Fathers' and mothers' speech and interaction styles show commonalities and differences. Fine-tuned speech is the lens through which most recent maternal-paternal CDS has been compared and contrasted. Using this metric, most researchers have concluded that fathers are demanding and challenging communicative partners for their children. Given this less solicitous verbal style, the bridge hypothesis has been proposed to account for special contributions made by fathers to their language-learning children. In this paper, we reviewed the extant literature that appears to bear on this point. A number of moderating variables were discussed that may influence the specific language forms employed by fathers. We tendered the proposal that fathers' teasing and play behavior, discrepant and destabilizing in style, might also serve a bridging function in preparing children for the wider world of extra-familial interaction. Careful monitoring of longitudinal data will be needed to confirm that the discrepant character of fathers' CDS does indeed have salubrious influences for their developing children.


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Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to G.G. Abkarian, Human Development and Family Studies, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado 80523-1570. Electronic mail:


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Author:Abkarian, Andrea K.
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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