I’m having deja vu here. First, I wrote about the study connecting a father’s post partum depression to behavioral problems in their children, then I interviewed Dr. Ramchandani about that study, and now I’m back again to give you more depression news and a new interview…
James Paulson of the Eastern Virginia Medical School did a study on 5,000 families that revealed some startling information about children of depressed fathers. The results of their study showed that children with sad Dads were able to speak on average 1.5 words less than the standard average, and that those same Dads were less likely to read to their children for the average length of time.
My first reaction to the research was that the results did not show a wide enough statistical gap to be alarming. There was only a 1.5 word difference. The image of a child only knowing half a word is amusing me now, even though I know it’s an average.
My second reaction was that any vocabulary gap (especially one that small) is essentially insignificant because toddler word knowledge does not indicate present or future intelligence - my Mom, an early intervention specialist, agreed with me. I realize this argument is a sort of straw man, but it’s a valid point if for only to remind parents who might misinterpret the emphasis on word knowledge in the study.
My final reaction was that the connection between word knowledge and depression was not noticed in the mothers in this study and other studies, and that the explanation for this difference (mothers push through their depression better) seemed apologetic and sexist.
Here to answer my questions and to explain this study is Dr. James F. Paulson, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Eastern Virginia Medical School. The following are his unedited responses to my interview:
Can you tell me more about the New Father Program you are developing? What are your goals with the project? Is this in the early stages or can the public expect something soon?
My group is currently in the process of developing a program for expecting and new fathers that is tentatively designated “Dads Matter.” This program is aimed at fathers who might otherwise be referred directly into a standard childbirth/early parenting preparation course, the sort that is widely available and often coordinated via hospital birthing centers. It is not ready for the public yet, as we’re making our best effort at building it carefully to be engaging and attractive to fathers (both in the way it’s presented and its content) and this process requires pilot work with fathers going through the parenthood transition. Ideally, it will stand as a complement to traditionally mother-center parenting preparation and education programming.
Are you familiar with the recent Children of the 90s study that showed a correlation between behavior problems in children and post-partum depression in their fathers? Will you be looking at this possible connection in the future to replicate Dr. Ramchandani’s research? Have you had a chance to compare your data with that project?
Dr. Ramchandani’s research is well-known to our group and it is excellent work that’s moved us quickly forward in understanding that paternal depression (the father’s involvement more generally) can clearly impact child health and development. Our current ongoing research should lead to a partial replication of Dr. Ramchandani’s work and may provide new information.
Do you feel that vocabulary knowledge at age 2 matters in the eventual intelligence of the children?
This is an excellent question that can’t be answered simply. we study phenomena like expressive vocabulary at the group level (averaging across many children) the knowledge gained speaks more powerfully to how a given phenomenon operates at a broader level. It doesn’t necessarily speak to any particular individual. This, perhaps, is the biggest source of confusion that people experience in digesting the findings of social, behavioral, and population-based research. That said, it’s fair to say that children’s vocabulary at age two matters, but it may be no more than a modest factor in school readiness and long-term academic achievement. It may be an indicator of intelligence that is measured later, but age two is a bit early to place much confidence in that link. What is particularly interesting about expressive vocabulary to us is that its disruption may serve as an signal of other developmental or family problems.
Did your study factor in any data regarding single fathers or at-home fathers?
Unfortunately, no. Little research has been done with either of these groups, although it is clearly needed.
How were the 50 words tested? Did the parents volunteer the information or were the children specifically quizzed with flashcards?
Inventory was used to assess expressive vocabulary. This instrument relied on the child’s primary caregiver to endorse which words the child was using at age two.
Did participation in daycare or pre-school programs make a difference in word knowledge? Did you find or look for a link in social skills in the children and depression in their parents?
We haven’t looked at this yet, but it is on the agenda for future research.
It seems like there is a link between reading less and word knowledge. Did your study find this to be true as a general rule?
This study does support the notion that there is a link between parent-to-child reading and the child’s word knowledge. It is important to note, however, that parents support their children’s development (language and otherwise) through a wide range of interactions. Speaking with the child, narrating activities to the child, play, storytelling, singing, and other activities certainly go a long way to help the child learn language, social skills, and self-regulation. By looking narrowly at reading to the child, we are able to capture a measurable parenting interaction that parents can easily follow up with.
How many of the children with lower use of vocabulary had both parents depressed? This seems like it might be significant because I would think that the non-depressed parent would pick up the slack with reading.
While there were a number of families where both parents experienced significant depression, we didn’t find a multiplicative effect for this on child vocabulary. In fact, we found that while depression in the father did have a negative impact on his reading to the child and the child’s expressive vocabulary, mother’s did not. This is certainly not to say that mother’s depression and behavior is unimportant, but rather that the mothers in this study did not substantially alter their reading behavior when depressed. We didn’t find a “picking up the slack” effect, but this sort of compensatory change in the family is something that is of interest where parental depression is concerned.
Why did you specifically look at depression at 9 months?
We looked at depression at 9 months both because it mirrors much of the research that has been done on postnatal depression (generally regarded as depression occurring up to a year after childbirth) and because we were interested if early parental depression had a substantial impact on parenting and child functioning later on.
A 1.5 word deficit doesn’t seem like a lot. Is there really reason to be concerned based on what seems to be a small variation?
You’re right. Even if we express this as a ratio (1.5 words of the 50 words tested), we’re only talking about a 3% reduction in vocabulary associated with depression. As I mentioned above, we’re interested in this reduction because it captures one component of child development and may signal other problems. At the very least, this small effect should raise eyebrows regarding potential child outcomes as a consequence of paternal depression and spark more research on this topic.
Thanks to Dr. James Paulson, and best of luck to him on his future work with his project “Dads Matter”. We here at Skeptic Dad obviously agree with the notion that Dads matter. It’s nice to see that science is being applied to the world of fathering.