Though family and faith are at the core of traditional Latino culture, and strong support for education is a powerful shared value, Hispanic fathers have not always seen a role for themselves in directly participating in their children’s early learning and future school success.
UnidosUS is bridging that gap with a one-of-a-kind new program to make certain Latino fathers see the difference they can make and have the tools and information they need to provide a strong foundation for their infants’ and young children’s early learning.
Though they’re so small and winsome, it might be hard to think of Latino infants and toddlers as something so serious sounding as “agents of change,” but that’s exactly what are. By any demographic measure, it’s plain that this population will have profound effects on every aspect of life in the U.S. and will be the engine of change at all levels of U.S. society. For our society to thrive, Latino children need to thrive.
Unfortunately, that isn’t necessarily the case. Though U.S.-born Latino babies are driving the nation’s population growth and shaping the makeup of its child population, they remain doubly invisible as one of the most under-recognized and under-served of U.S. population groups. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, as of October 2021, Hispanic children had the lowest enrollment rates in early childhood education (ECE), after Pacific Islanders, compared to all other population groups.
It’s an urgent, all-hands-on-deck moment for those who want to see Latino children take their place as fully engaged, fully resourced, equal contributors to U.S. society. UnidosUS is committed that Latino fathers be a part of that effort.
Latinos Are Us
According to UnidosUS:
More than 62 million people in the United States are Latino, a number that has increased 23% since 2010. The change is overwhelmingly driven by babies born in the U.S.;more than 90% of Latinos were born here.
By 2060,the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the Latino population will reach 111 million people, with Latino children comprising one-third of all 3- to 4-year-olds in the nation.
Latinos contribute $2.7 trillion to the U.S. economy; if they were an independent nation, they would be the seventh largest economy in the world. (Governing, Nov. 11, 2021)
“With a population of more than 62 million people on its way to becoming 110 million in the coming decades, sharing information about the importance of early learning and dual language development with Latino families is a crucial mission for us,” says Dr. Robert Stechuk, UnidosUS’s director of Early Childhood Education initiatives.
Incorporating key scientific findings in the fields of infant development, early reading and dual language learning, the nonprofit has produced Vital and Valuable: Latino Fathers and Their Infants, their latest topic brief in the organization’s Latino Infant Initiative (operated in partnership with Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors). This powerful, practical program is designed to break down myths and misunderstandings fathers might have about early learning and put the latest research into the hands of Latino fathers in an actionable way.
Father engagement is an active concern within UnidosUS, which serves as the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization and has an affiliate network of almost 300 community-based organizations throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
“At least 50 of our affiliates have early childhood programs or offerings,” Stechuk says. “Several affiliates have been telling us within the last year or two that they’ve been launching fatherhood initiatives. Others have said they’ve been working on father engagement but stopped because of a shortage of materials relevant to Latino dads.
“When I went to the National Head Start Association’s conference at the end of 2022, many of the sessions were on father engagement,” he said. “So, there’s a lot of interest in bringing fathers into the picture. The challenge is that there are websites with literally thousands of resources and a lot of it has even been translated into Spanish. But there is minimal information related to early language, early literacy, the important of early reading: all the developmental information that can show dads how to build their children’s vocabulary, language skills and love of reading/books that underlie successful literacy.”
To counter this dearth of information, UnidosUS launched its Vital and Valuable brief in May and is distributing it to all of its affiliates nationally and through various channels to reach the UnidosUS community and other stakeholders.
Fathers want the information, Stechuk says.
In 2022, five parent focus groups were held at UnidosUS affiliates to learn more about the experiences of Latino parents and their families. The fathers who joined had important concerns about how to do the best for their children. They talked about wanting to step outside the traditional cultural roles they grew up with and having an active role in supporting their children’s development.
“I have a baby and want to be there for my child,” one said. “When I was growing up, my dad abandoned us, so I want to be there for my child.”
Another said, “I grew up Latino in Chicago but turned my back on my culture and was totally alienated from my heritage. Now, I appreciate my culture and want my children to have that. I want them to be bilingual and to do well in school. I’m hungry for more information.”
Vital and Valuable encourages fathers to support their children in being bilingual despite any messages they might have heard to the contrary. It’s a great asset for babies’ brain development and language learning—in any language. In numerous studies, researchers have found that bilingual babies learn English at the same rate as monolingual infants and develop vocabularies that equal or exceed those of English-only babies. Juggling two languages doesn’t confuse babies, as the pernicious myth goes, it enhances their executive function—the set of mental skills and self-regulation that helps people plan, problem-solve and respond in an orderly way to the world around them.
The Latino community has long been affected by systemic racism, with the suppression of their Spanish language one of its most damaging aspects. Latino families have been told by school personnel that they could damage their children’s development and academic success by speaking Spanish to them, and children have been and still are being bullied or teased for using Spanish in class or on the playground.
Vital and Valuable provides easy-to-follow pointers, such as, “If you speak Spanish, interact with your baby in Spanish. If you speak Spanish and English, interact with your baby in either language.” The most important thing, the brief says, is for dads to speak with their babies every day in whatever language they choose because providing experiences with language right after baby is born is the best way to start building reading success.
Another myth Vital and Valuable lays to rest is the idea that talking to babies doesn’t matter because they can’t speak yet. Reading success is built from Day One in a child’s life, and the brief boils down the research supporting how a rich daily bath in language, or more than one, with lots of “serve and return” interactions, builds the foundation of reading comprehension.
Fathers’ Play—Different and Essential
Fathers’ growing interest in being more connected with their young children coincides with a growing body of research into dads’ unique contribution to early learning. They aren’t just moms with deeper voices; they bring unique characteristics to infant speech development. Studies have observed that fathers use more rare words and fewer common words with their babies than mothers do, and their speech is often more diverse and challenging to the child. Fathers use significantly more wh words (why? what? who?) and ask for clarification more often than mothers do—strategies that may be unconscious but that researchers believe foster children’s reasoning abilities as well as strengthening their vocabulary.
For decades, researchers and psychologists—even families themselves—have assumed that the mother-child bond was the most important in the child’s life, while overlooking the profound contribution fathers make in their children’s development.
“In speaking with fathers,” Stechuk says, “it’s very clear that virtually all dads want their children to be academically successful. So, we want to engage fathers there to talk about what they want for their children. We want to talk about reading as essential for that success.
“Once children fall behind grade level, they tend to stay behind,” he says. “Failure to read is a real poison. It poisons children’s achievement, poisons their self-concept and self-esteem. Poisons their futures, really.
“And guess what? The antidote is early language development. By spending a few moments every day talking back and forth with their children and using some language strategies that don’t cost any money, fathers are giving their children the foundation for long-term reading success.”
Fathers themselves may be the ones who are least aware of how much they matter to their children’s early development. After reading Vital and Valuable, there will be no room for doubt.
UnidosUS is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that has served as the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization since its beginnings in 1968 as the National Council of La Raza.
K.C. Compton worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for newspapers throughout the Rocky Mountain region for 20 years before moving to the Kansas City area as an editor for Mother Earth News. She has been in Seattle since 2016, enjoying life as a freelance and contract writer and editor.