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Denise Cummins Ph.D.

The Truth About Children of Working Mothers

Media reports have not told the whole story. This is what you need to know.

© Creatista | Dreamstime.com - Exhausted Working Mother With Baby Royalty Free
Source: © Creatista | Dreamstime.com - Exhausted Working Mother With Baby Royalty Free

Nearly three-quarters of mothers work outside the home. Yet a 2007 Pew Research Center poll reported that 41 percent of adults say the increase in working mothers is bad for society, and only one in five mothers of preschool-aged children prefer full-time work.

New York Times writer Claire Cain Miller hopes that a recent study will finally put to rest the mommy wars over what is best for young children: stay-at-home parenting or daycare.

The study in question is the Working Mother Study report, authored by Harvard Business School researchers Kathleen McGinn and Mayra Ruiz Castro and Elizabeth Long Lingo of Mt. Holyoke College. The study examined 50,000 families in 25 countries. The result highlighted in the Times was this:

Daughters of working mothers completed more years of education and were more likely to be employed and in supervisory roles and earned higher incomes. The careers of sons were unaffected.

One difficulty with disseminating this conclusion is that the study is not yet published, meaning that it has not yet passed the rigorous peer review that is required for publication in a scientific journal. Instead, the results were simply reported in a Harvard news release.

Miller is on firmer ground when she cites a published 2010 meta-analysis of 69 studies over 50 years. She points out that the meta-analysis found that, in general, children whose mothers worked when they were young had no major learning, behavior or social problems, and tended to be high achievers in school and have less depression and anxiety.

Yet the results of this meta-analysis are actually more nuanced than that:

The results actually show that early daycare is associated with better outcomes only for kids growing up in single-parent, low-income families.

In the researchers' own words,

...moderator analyses indicated that early maternal employment was associated with beneficial child outcomes when families were at risk socioeconomically, particularly in the context of families with single parents and on welfare; these findings support the compensatory hypothesis of employment for these families (e.g., NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2003).

This makes perfect sense. Mom is completely stressed out because she is working full time and caring for her kids single-handedly while earning a meager paycheck. Early daycare isn't a choice; it is a necessity. But when there are two parents participating in childrearing and their income level is reasonably high, the children of working mothers were at a disadvantage. The researchers write,

In contrast, other analyses indicated that employment was associated with negative child outcomes when families were not at risk financially (i.e., when families were middle or upper-middle class); these findings support the lost-resources hypothesis for these types of families (e.g., NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2003).

The timing of maternal employment also mattered. Infant daycare during the first year of life proved to be detrimental:

Timing of employment was also an important moderator, such that Year 1 employment was negatively associated with children’s achievement, whereas later employment (Years 2 and 3) was positively associated with achievement.

The results highlighted in the Times article would seem to suggest that there is no need for parental leave programs because children are actually helped rather than harmed by early introduction to daycare. Yet a more careful reading of the results suggests a very different conclusion, namely, that daycare is beneficial during the first year of life only for low-income single mothers who are overwhelmed from trying to do it all themselves. As John Oliver so eloquently and humorously puts it in this video clip,

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t go on and on about how much you love mothers and then fail to support legislation that makes life easier for them.

Another factor that looms large in research on childcare is the wide variability in outcome based on the type of care and instruction provided by the daycare center. There is an abundance of research attesting to the importance of letting kids play during early childhood rather than immersing them in controlled instruction.

Fellow blogger Peter Gray summarizes some of this literature in a recent blog post. The most telling results come from a longitudinal study of 68 high-poverty children living in Ypsilanti, Michigan who were assigned to one of three types of nursery schools: Traditional (play-based), High/Scope (which was like the traditional but involved more adult guidance), and Direct Instruction (where the focus was on teaching reading, writing, and math, using worksheets and tests).

Those in the direct-instruction group showed early academic gains. But these gains soon vanished. In Gray's words,

By age 15 those in the Direct Instruction group had committed, on average, more than twice as many “acts of misconduct” than had those in the other two groups.

At age 23... the Direct Instruction group had more instances of friction with other people, were more likely to have shown evidence of emotional impairment, were less likely to be married and living with their spouse, and were far more likely to have committed a crime than were those in the other two groups.

In fact, by age 23, 39 percent of those in the Direct Instruction group had felony arrest records compared to an average of 13.5 percent in the other two groups; and 19% of the Direct Instruction group had been cited for assault with a dangerous weapon compared with 0% in the other two groups.

Perhaps the wealth of research conducted so far on childcare can be best summarized this way: Young children need to play and explore in an environment where they feel safe and loved. For infants, this ideally means caregivers to whom they feel they belong.

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins May 19, 2015

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

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