Hands On: Nonverbal Communication in Native and Non-Native American Parent–Child Dyads During Informal Learning

Miriam A. Novack*, Murielle Standley, Megan Bang, Karen Washinawatok, Douglas Medin, Sandra Waxman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Parent–child communication is a rich, multimodal process. Substantial research has documented the communicative strategies in certain (predominantly White) United States families, yet we know little about these communicative strategies in Native American families. The current study addresses that gap by documenting the verbal and nonverbal behaviors used by parents and their 4-year-old children (N = 39, 25 boys) across two communities: Menominee families (low to middle income) living on tribal lands in rural Wisconsin, and non-Native, primarily White families (middle income) living in an urban area. Dyads participated in a free-play forest-diorama task designed to elicit talk and play about the natural world. Children from both communities incorporated actions and gestures freely in their talk, emphasizing the importance of considering nonverbal behaviors when evaluating what children know. In sharp contrast to the stereotype that Native American children talk very little, Menominee children talked more than their non-Native counterparts, underlining the importance of taking into account cultural context in child assessments. For children and parents across both communities, gestures were more likely than actions to be related to the content of speech and were more likely than actions to be produced simultaneously with speech. This tight coupling between speech and gesture replicates and extends prior research with predominantly White (and adult) samples. These findings not only broaden our theories of communicative interaction and development, but also provide new evidence about the role of nonverbal behaviors in informal learning contexts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)32-42
Number of pages11
JournalDevelopmental psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2022


  • Action
  • Cross-cultural development
  • Dyadic-interaction
  • Gesture
  • Native american

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Demography
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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