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Mexican-American Toddlers: Understanding The Achievement Gap

Mexican-American toddlers born in the U.S. do not develop nearly as fast as white toddlers when it comes to language and pre-literacy skills. That's the main finding of a new study by the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley.

The study followed 4,550 Mexican-American children from birth to 30 months of age. At 9 months, these infants recognized words and gestures and had no trouble manipulating objects such as rattles and simple toys. But by age 2, their vocabulary, the number of words they knew and their overall pre-literacy skills lagged way behind. Four out of five Mexican-American toddlers displayed a slower rate of growth than that of their white peers.

Researchers say one reason is that Latino parents do not invite their children to speak at an early age. Bruce Fuller, co-author of the study, says that does not mean Mexican-American parents are less nurturing or caring.

"But what the new findings show," says Fuller, "is that a lot of that warm parenting is not necessarily infused with rich language, with questioning kids, with giving kids cognitive challenges."

So by age 2 1/2, the gap between Mexican-Americans and whites is significant — as much as five months. Children whose mothers are foreign-born fall the farthest behind. Only 28 percent of these mothers said they read to their child daily, compared with 59 percent of white mothers.

According to the study, white mothers are more likely to work on their kids' pre-literacy skills earlier, at around age 2. Mexican-American moms tend to wait until their child reaches kindergarten age, 4 to 5 years old. This raises sensitive questions about parenting especially among poor, foreign-born parents.

"It's certainly not a function simply of material poverty, but I think it is a weakness of parenting in the U.S. context," Fuller says.

"In school kids are rewarded to process symbols and mathematical tasks pretty quickly. So it's in the U.S. context and school context that [Latino] parenting practices are not up to snuff."

"It's not necessarily that they don't know how to parent," says Selma Caal, a researcher for Child Trends, a nonprofit with a focus on Latino children and families. She says there are two key factors in the development of toddlers: family income and the education of the mother.

"If the mother is working as well as the father, they will be more likely to provide the sorts of things children may need," says Caal.

Fuller says that's actually one of the study's more intriguing findings. Mexican-American toddlers showed more robust growth if their moms worked outside the home.

"Mothers working outside the home are exposed to more middle-class forms of parenting," Fuller says. "They're talking with fellow workers about how they question their kids, how they introduce kids to educational TV and digital media."

He says it's the kind of exposure that helps assimilation and leads to innovative parenting.

The full study appears in the Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences.

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