Parents who worry they are forever damaging their children by dropping them off at day care every morning can find some comfort in a recent study that looked at academic achievement and behavioral issues of children whose mothers work outside the home versus those with moms who stay home.
An analysis of 50 years of research found that kids of working mothers don’t turn out to be much different than those with stay-at-home moms, at least when it comes to academic achievement and behavior issues.
The research, published in November in Psychological Bulletin, examined 69 studies conducted between 1960 and March 2010. The good news is that, overall, children whose mothers return to work early in their lives (before age 3) are no more likely to have significant behavior or academic problems than kids whose moms stay at home.
However, the researchers did find some small effects – positive and negative – when they broke the results down into various sub-groups of children.
Kids from middle- and upper-class, two-parent families performed slightly worse on formal tests of achievement and showed a slight increase in behavior problems when their mothers worked full-time during the first three years of their lives.
And children from low-income, single-parent families actually did better on achievement tests and had fewer behavior problems when their moms were employed.
The answer to the question of how a child will be affected by a working mother is, “it depends.”
The findings should alleviate parents’ biggest fears about returning to work, said the lead author of the analysis, Rachel Lucas-Thompson, assistant professor of psychology at Macalester College.
“Hopefully, these findings could reassure mothers that they’re not screwing up their kids by going back to work,” Lucas-Thompson said. “In general, we’re seeing very few associations. They’re frequently positive, and whether they’re positive or negative, they’re very small.”
A possible explanation for the positive effects seen in some children is that, for low-income or welfare-dependent households, the extra income from a working mother may reduce family stress.
And for single-parent households, an employed mother might be a better role model for her children. These benefits could outweigh any potential negative consequences of maternal absence.
However, in households where there isn’t a pressing economic need for the mother to work, the extra income might not outweigh the advantages of always having a parent around.
It might be a mistake to discount the negative results seen for some children just because they are small effects, said Jay Belsky, professor of psychology at Birkbeck University of London and an investigator in the National Institutes of Health Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. Belsky was not involved in this research, but a study he authored in 1991 was one of the 69 included in the meta-analysis.
“The effects we’re talking about are not likely to be visible to the naked eye,” Belsky said. “You couldn’t walk into a kindergarten class or a class of fifth-graders and say, ‘You see that kid over there? He was or he wasn’t,’ ” he said. “But what’s more important: a big effect that applies to few, or a small effect that applies to many?”
“While these results – good, bad or indifferent – do not really offer much guidance to any individual parent struggling with the issue, they might offer guidance to policy makers who are concerned with the aggregate,” Belsky said, adding that he would support a parental leave policy that would let parents stay home for the first year of a child’s life. Lucas-Thompson agreed.
“Our results could support moves toward providing parents with more flexible-leave policies, where they could postpone a return to work if they chose, or could at least reduce the number of hours they work during that first year,” Lucas-Thompson said.