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 from those with stay-at-home moms, at least when it comes to academic achievement and behavior issues.
The research, published 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?"
In a country where kids compete for spots in elite preschools and colleges need special ceremonies to force helicopter-parents to finally say goodbye, any potential influence, no matter how small, on a child's future achievement could be enough to keep some parents awake at night. Even so, whether or not a mother returns to work isn't simply a matter of how the kids will turn out. Besides financial considerations, parents have to think about their own preferences, Belsky said. Are there are jobs out there they'd like to have? Does being a stay-at-home-parent appeal to them?
The meta-analysis also found that the timing of a mother's return to work was important. Going back to work before your child is 1 year old was associated with small decreases in later academic success, while employment during the second or third year of life was linked with increases in achievement. Working full-time during the first year was connected to more behavior problems, but working only part-time wasn't.
One factor that wasn't examined by the analysis is the type and quality of a child's alternative care. Kids who spend all day with a relative might have different outcomes than children who go to a day-care center. And little is known about how a father's employment affects children.
"Where future research can continue to explore is really considering both maternal employment and paternal employment, because historically it's been the norm that fathers are working," Lucas-Thompson said. "There have been few studies of those two types of employment together."
Belsky said the biggest strength of this research is that it shows just how complicated the issue of parental employment, and its effect on children, is.
"The failure to take into account that complexity has been a problem in this field," Belsky said. "What this analysis shows is that there are different answers to the question: what are the effects of maternal employment? And what it finds is that there's good news and bad news — and no news."