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Published in Print: March 10, 1999, as Mothers' Jobs Have Modest Effect on Children

Mothers' Jobs Have Modest Effect on Children

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Whether children are harmed by having mothers who work outside the home is a topic of great debate.

But a new study, published this month in the journal Developmental Psychology, concludes that the negative effects on children aren't very great. In fact, the researcher who conducted the study concludes that some children benefit from the income that their mothers bring to the household.

Elizabeth Harvey, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, analyzed data from the long-running National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor, to determine how parental employment affects children's academic achievement, behavior, and emotional development.

For More Information:

"Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Early Parental Employment on Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth," appears in the March issue of the journal Developmental Psychology, which is published by the American Psychological Association. The study is also available from the APA at (202) 336-5700; or on the Web at: www.apa.org/journals/dev/dev352445.html.

She found that having parents who work has both positive and negative effects on children that counteract each other. The effects overall, however, are small.

The NLSY, a sample of approximately 12,600 people who have been interviewed annually since 1979--including children born in 1980 or later who have been added to the study--should be an ideal tool for studying the effects of parents' employment on children, researchers say. But because different research methods were used in each of the past six studies of working mothers and their children based on NLSY data, the results have been mixed, which has added to the confusion over the emotionally charged issue.

Some of the research has shown that young children are harmed by being cared for by someone other than their mothers during the first year of life.

This latest study is more reliable, Ms. Harvey writes, because it uses data that was collected over a longer period of time and is based on a larger sample of children.

Small Effects Found

Ms. Harvey looked at more than 6,000 children in four age groups, beginning at age 3 and ending at age 12. She studied several variables, such as whether a mother worked at all during the first three years of a child's life, how early after giving birth she returned to work, how many hours she worked each week, and whether there were any periods of unemployment during those first three years.

She found that among mothers who worked, only the timing of the return to work and interruptions in employment affected how obedient children were at ages 3 and 4. Those whose mothers returned to work after three years were slightly more compliant than those whose mothers went back to work earlier. The differences faded by the time the children were 5 and 6.

The number of hours a mother worked also had a small effect on children's test scores; the more hours the mother worked, the lower the child scored. But again, Ms. Harvey found, those differences were not significant and eventually disappeared.

Fathers' Employment

The new research also gives some attention to working fathers. But as with mothers, employment by fathers has no significant effect on children's development.

Ms. Harvey's research shows that working more hours may have more benefits for children in low-income families than for those in families with higher incomes. And she concludes that the income that working parents bring home has positive effects on children's behavior and academic achievement.

Ms. Harvey notes that her study doesn't take into account the quality of the child-care settings in which children spend time while their mothers are working.

That question, though, has been the subject of ongoing research sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The federally funded study has shown that the quality of child care matters much more than whether or not a mother is working.

Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, a Columbia University researcher who analyzed the NLSY data in 1991 when the sample of children was much smaller, said she liked the way Ms. Harvey examined previous studies.

But she questioned Ms. Harvey's emphasis on the timing of maternal employment. Using that as a variable, she said, doesn't answer the question of how children are affected when their mothers work during the first year.

Ms. Brooks-Gunn's research showed that there were small negative effects on children's language development and achievement when mothers went to work during the first year. But during children's second and third years, maternal employment was associated with more positive outcomes.

Vol. 18, Issue 26, Page 8

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