Sunday, June 29, 2014

Do working mothers compromise their child's school readiness?



As a psychologist, I have the pleasure of working alongside a number of brilliant women. As a result, I am also keenly aware of the challenges that come with being an academic when you are also a wife and a mother. Unfortunately, no matter how much sleep you skip, there are a limited number of hours in the day. Since women have increasingly joined the workforce in the past century, people have wondered how this is affecting children. 

On the one hand, maternal employment increases the financial resources of the family, thus allowing for better nutrition, safer housing, and better education which benefit child development. On the other hand, children with mothers who work get less one-on-one time with their mothers which may delay or prevent optimal social, cognitive, and emotional development. Both of these competing theories have been debated for decades among psychologists and economists with little resolution besides, "it's complicated." 

What makes the story even more complicated is that women joining the workforce has lead to a social and cultural transition that is still ongoing. Fifty years ago, children with working mothers may have been at a developmental disadvantage because women were expected to do most of the childcare, manage the household, and good childcare was difficult to find. Today, men participate more in maintaining the household and options for great childcare are plentiful. In short, Bob Dylan was right, "Times they are a changin'."

Dr. Lombardi  and Dr. Rebekah Coley of Boston College were interested in this long-standing question, and wanted to provide an empirical answer for today's working mothers and their children. They did this by asking the question: Are children with working mothers less ready for kindergarten? 

To answer this question they recruited 10,100 children born  in 2001 from 96 sites across the United States. They met with these children and their families when the children were 9 months old, 2 years old, 4 years old, and at the start of kindergarten. At each of the assessments, they gathered information on whether each mother was working, how many hours they worked per week, family income, parent marital status, siblings in the home, maternal education, and more. When the child started kindergarten, the researchers conducted standardized assessments of each child's early math skills, early reading skills, behavioral and emotion regulation. 

With all of this information they looked at whether maternal working status was related to children's readiness for school at the start of kindergarten as evidenced by their math, reading, and behavioral skills. They also looked at whether time, stress, or money strengthened the relationship between mothers who work and their child's school readiness. 

In short, the answer was no. As far as we can see from this large sample of children born in 2001, there was no relationship between whether mothers work and their children's school readiness. One exception to that was that mothers who returned to part-time work before their child was 2 years old  more likely to have poor social skills and more behavior problems in kindergarten than other kids whose mothers went back to full-time work  or didn't work at all. 


With respect to time, stress, and money, Lombardi and Coley were interested in whether how much each parent worked, how much they were stressed, or their need for money influenced the relationship between their working and their child's functioning. They found that among families with average income (in this sample $32,000 per year), there was no association between mothers working and their child's kindergarten readiness. However, maternal employment before 9 months was less advantageous for children's reading and math skills as family income increased. 

What's helpful to know is that in all of these analyses they accounted for the influence of a number of important factors such as the family's total income, marital status, siblings, maternal age, maternal education, cognitive ability of the child during infancy, child's sex, child's race, child's birth weight, and the child's age at the start of kindergarten.  In each of these models, the factors that were associated with better math and reading skills were: being older at the start of kindergarten, higher family income, and higher maternal education, while the factors contributing to lower math and reading skills in kindergarten were: having low birth weight, having siblings, and being on welfare at any point during the study. What's interesting about welfare within this study was that being on welfare throughout the entire study was not associated with math and reading skills, while being on welfare at some point during the study was disadvantageous when it comes to school readiness. This suggests that financial stability plays a protective role, even if that stability always includes welfare. 

In summary, kids today seem to be doing the same when it comes to being ready for the academic and social demands of school regardless of whether their mothers work or don't work. What really matters is having educated parents and developing a stable financial home however you can make that happen. At the very least, I hope that allows mom's a little bit more peace of mind that their academic pursuits are helping their children and their careers aren't hurting them.  

Lombardi, C. M., & Coley, R. L. (2014). Early Maternal Employment and Children's School Readiness in Contemporary Families. Developmental psychology.

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