The Early Home Environment of Latino Children: A Research Synthesis
Although the developmental science field is becoming increasingly responsive to the changing demographics in the United States, much of the research to date on children’s early home environments has focused on white, middle-class families. Consequently, much less is known about the early home experiences of Latino children, even though Latinos constitute the largest racial/ethnic minority group of children. To address this critical gap, this report:
- Synthesizes existing research on the early home environments of Latino children and their families to better understand the nature of their early home experiences and how these experiences are linked to children’s developmental trajectories.
- Provides an analytical review of this literature to highlight what is known and to identify gaps in research.
- Draws conclusions and implications for research, programs, and policies interested in serving Latino children and their families.
Our review of the research suggests that the evidence on how the early home experiences of Latino children help them grow and develop is limited in scope and breadth and is largely not based on theoretically driven research. It is striking that most of this research has focused more on the adversities that Latino families face, rather than on their strengths, that it confounds ethnicity and socioeconomic status (SES), and that it does not consider the heterogeneity of Latinos in the United States.
Summary of the research: What do we know?
- The research suggests that the early home environments of Latino children include both positive and less positive attributes. On the one hand, many Latino children live in relatively stable two-parent households with parents who are steadily employed. On the other hand, many Latino children live with parents who have low levels of education and are likely to experience economic hardship.
- The literature on early experiences focuses disproportionately on challenges and adversity. These studies focus on Latino children’s delays in developing language skills and their lack of literacy skills, compared to their non-Latino peers.
- Much of the extant research centers on a specific set of parental investments, especially literacy support at home and mother-child relationships. These studies have found that, on average, and compared to non-Latinas, Latina mothers spend less time engaged in literacy activities such as reading; fathers are also reported to read less often, although the quality of their reading activities may be higher than that of mothers.
- Most studies on parental resources focus on maternal education. These studies have found that maternal education among Latinas may be more predictive of children’s development than income. Across ethnic groups, mothers with more education are more likely to engage in frequent literacy activities and homework assistance than mothers with less education.
- Studies on family functioning have focused primarily on parenting stress and the quality of the co-parenting relationship. These studies reveal that increased parenting stress is associated with children’s behavior problems, and that supportive co-parenting is associated with responsive parenting and social competence for children.
- Only a few studies have examined socialization practices. These descriptive studies have found that cultural beliefs and values such as familismo and respeto are related to parenting practices, which, in turn, are related to children’s behaviors.
- Studies that have examined maternal behaviors find that Latina mothers are warm and loving but are not very sensitive and responsive to their children’s needs (e.g., scaffold, following children’s cues in play), which is important for cognitive development.
- Most studies we reviewed focused on cognitive and achievement outcomes; fewer focused on social and emotional development. These studies find that Latino children’s cognitive and language skills often lag behind those of their white peers, whereas their social skills compare favorably with, or exceed, their peers.
- Much of the research treats Latinos as a homogenous group. Findings based on a particular group—for example, Mexican Americans, who are the largest ethnic group in the United States and the most frequently studied—are then implicitly or explicitly generalized to all Latinos in the United States.
Summary of the research: What are the gaps?
- Most of the research on Latino children’s early home environments has not been guided by theoretical frameworks that identify the aspects of the home environment that are critical for children’s development. In fact, it is mostly correlational, based on samples of convenience, and not longitudinal; as such, it has limited generalizability.
- Existing research on Latino families focuses predominately on risk factors that emphasize a deficit approach (i.e., focus mostly on adversity or challenges) and neglects the conditions that can promote social adaptation. For example, the extant research understudies the ways in which resources (such as living in two-parent families) are associated with family functioning and children’s development. We know little about how Latinos learn to adapt to the cultural norms of the United States while also maintaining some norms of their country of heritage (i.e., becoming bicultural)—adaptive behavior that seems likely to lead to positive outcomes for children and families.
- Of the key dimensions of the home environment (e.g., resources, family functioning, parents’ investments), we know the least about the cultural context of development. For example, the field has understudied how cultural socialization processes and cultural norms, beliefs, values, or expectations are embedded in parenting and children’s development. Most studies do not operationalize cultural variables and provide little empirical evidence that cultural factors protect young children.
- Little is also known about how parenting practices like family routines, which are important socialization mechanisms for the transmission of cultural norms and values, promote cognitive and social competence. The latter is an area of development in which Latino children often compare favorably with, or exceed, their peers.
- There is little understanding of how various forms of instability (e.g., household chaos) may be associated with children’s development. Immigrant families, for example, often experience unique sources of instability and stress that may be related to their immigration status and may affect children’s development.
- Research on family functioning is also very limited. There is little empirical research on marital quality, anxiety, and stressors that go beyond economic factors, such as those related to immigration status. Similarly, existing research has paid little attention to indicators of psychological well-being, such as optimism.
- Studies of Latinos have focused largely on one social identity—being Latino—and have rarely acknowledged other social dimensions such as gender, nativity status, or language. The study of intersectionality of identity is largely nonexistent in this literature.
Implications for research
- There is an urgent need to conduct research on Latinos that is grounded in theory and that balances a focus on deficits with a focus on strengths. We need better theoretical models that recognize the interplay of multiple protective factors, such as family structure and promotive parenting practices (e.g., routines). Although most Latino children live in two-parent families, many also live with parents who experience sustained stress and anxiety due to economic hardship, immigration status, balancing work and family, finding appropriate schools or child care for their children, and parenting in a new country. What coping skills do these families have and which do they need to develop?
- A greater focus is needed on the intersectionality of SES, ethnicity, nativity, language, and immigration status. Focusing on one factor and statistically controlling for others is an approach that is inadequate and has little practical significance.
- More systematic and theoretically rigorous research is needed to understand how specific aspects of the home environment (e.g., routines) of Latino children support their development—not just cognitively (e.g., language and math), but also socially, physically, and mentally across the lifespan. We need a focus on the mechanisms or pathways of development.
- We need research that acknowledges the bidirectional influence of mothers, fathers, and children, as well as extended kin. Parents influence children’s development, but children also influence parents’ behaviors.
Implications for program and practice
- Culture is more than food and language. Programs targeted to Latinos must recognize that culture encompasses every aspect of an individual’s life. The cultural context of Latinos in the United States is bicultural: They are navigating and embracing aspects of the cultural context of the host society while consciously retaining important aspects of their culture of heritage. Toward this end, children and parents should be supported in strengthening their native language while becoming proficient in English. Promoting bilingualism should be an important goal of programs for both children and families.
- The heterogeneity of the Latino population should be an important consideration for program delivery, and a one-size-fits-all approach may not be effective. Latinos in the United States vary in terms of educational levels, immigration history, language, SES, and religion. Programs should recognize that Latino families are complex entities with diverse economic experiences, family structure, resources, and immigration history.
- Most young Latino children live with their fathers and mothers. Programs targeted at families and children must involve fathers. As a group, Latino fathers have a strong sense of the importance of the family and share with their partners in the day-to-day care of their children.
- Programs should build on families’ strengths and nurture them. Latinos families’ strong family orientation, work ethic, and high motivation to help their children should be strengthened and used as a platform from which to address the multiple challenges they face. Programmatic efforts should focus on maintaining positive marital and parenting relationships, especially at key developmental transitions; helping families secure high-quality child care and schools; and strengthening available coping mechanisms.
- Programs should make a concerted effort to provide services that reduce parenting stress and other sources of stress. Parents who are less stressed have higher-quality interactions with their children, which promotes their well-being and development.