Research: Working Mothers Don’t Harm Their Kids’ Learning

A meta-analysis of six studies on how children with working mothers perform academically shows that students whose mothers went out to work during the first years of their lives perform on par with their peers who have stay-at-home moms, Emily Dugan of The Independent reports. Combined, the studies looked at academic performance of more than 40,000 children over the course of 40 years, and conclusively prove that women don’t jeopardize their children’s educational outcomes when they choose to combine parenting with full-time employment.

In the first three decades after mothers entered the workforce in large numbers for the first time, their children lagged their peers slightly in both numeracy and literacy, the analysis finds. But that discrepancy disappeared for children born in the mid-1990s or later.

The analysis appears at the time when the UK’s House of Commons takes up a proposal to raise the ratio of children to childcare workers. Labour MPs have protested the move, saying that it will cause harm to kids with two working parents.

Children born in 2000 or 2001 showed no significant difference in cognitive ability or behaviour at the age of five whether their mothers had gone out to work or not in their first year. Studies of previous decades showed children’s literacy and numeracy levels were around two percentage points lower when mothers worked.

The research was welcomed by parenting groups, who said it would put an end to the “emotional baggage” many mothers face when going back to work. Professor Heather Joshi, of the University of London’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies, who wrote the report, said: “There has traditionally been a concern that the employment of mothers comes at the expense of child development. But as the percentage of mothers in work has gone up, any impact on children has diminished.”

Although not assigning credit directly, Joshi did note that the academic performance gap closed during the period when the number of childcare workers increased under policies adopted by the Labour government. Prior to New Labour’s childcare expansion, third-party care was generally available only to those in the upper classes who could afford to pay for it, or those in the lower classes who could afford it via government subsidies. Middle-class families generally had to make do “with informal arrangements.”

According to Dugan, the findings could go a long way to dispelling the “myth” that working mothers are harming their kids.

The topic of working mothers received attention last month when a high school graduation speech by social studies teacher Peter Heck encouraged women to put their focus on their children rather than their jobs if they wanted their kids to be well-adjusted and successful.

Eastern High School Social Studies teacher Peter Heck spoke to graduates about focusing on their families first ahead of careers, but it was his comments about the specific role of women that sparked the biggest controversy.

He said that problems experienced by society today didn’t call for more women to pursue success in the workplace. More of them could be solved, he explained, by women dedicating themselves to motherhood.