How working moms are good for kids

Had this Upshot post open forever.  Finally wanted to write a quick post.  With all the “mommy wars” as a constant in our culture, here’s some interesting research on how it is good for kids to have a working mom:

Nearly three-quarters of American mothers with children at home are employed. That fact doesn’t necessarily make it any easier for mothers to drop a toddler at day care or miss school plays. The mommy wars might seem like a relic of the 1990s, but 41 percent of adults say the increase in working mothers is bad for society, while just 22 percent say it is good, according to the Pew Research Center.

Yet evidence is mounting that having a working mother has some economic, educational and social benefits for children of both sexes. That is not to say that children do not also benefit when their parents spend more time with them — they do. But we make trade-offs in how we spend our time, and research shows that children of working parents also accrue benefits. [emphasis mine]

In a new study of 50,000 adults in 25 countries, daughters of working mothers completed more years of education, were more likely to be employed and in supervisory roles and earned higher incomes. Having a working mother didn’t influence the careers of sons, which researchers said was unsurprising because men were generally expected to work — but sons of working mothers did spend more time on child care and housework…

Other researchers are less confident that the data has proved such a large effect, because it is difficult to know whether a mother who worked caused her daughter to work, or whether other factors were more influential. “The problem is we don’t know how these mothers differed,” said Raquel Fernandez, an economics professor at New York University who was not involved with the Harvard study but who has also studied the topic. “Was it really her mother working who did this, or was it her mother getting an education?”

Either way, the new study is part of a shift away from focusing on whether working mothers hurt children and toward a richer understanding of the relationship between work and family.

Okay, I know what you are thinking, good social scientist that you are, but the study authors are good social scientists, too:

Ms. McGinn said she ran dozens of tests to see if the results could be explained by something other than the mother’s time at work — like the influence of a broader culture in which women worked more frequently, or the benefits of a mother’s increased income — but they could not. She controlled for factors including age, education and family makeup. The effects shrank after she controlled for these, but Ms. McGinn said the difference was still statistically significant.

Obviously, this is complicated stuff and there’s many different factors as play, but it’s hard to argue that working mothers are bad for children.  As I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before, parenting is far more about quality than quantity, and clearly most working moms are doing pretty well with quality.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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