How Does Both Parents Working Affect Children?

Working mothers, the vast majority of whom work in the first year of their child’s life, can relax and get off the guilt treadmill. Recent studies that followed thousands of children of working mothers from infancy through their teens conclude that children in child care centers fare no differently than those cared for by their mothers, and the benefits of both parents working outweigh any negative aspects.

Delaying a Return to Work Beneficial to Children

Data from a child care study, "First-Year Maternal Employment and Child Development in the First 7 Years," sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, found that "the overall effect of first-year maternal employment on child development is neutral" and has indirect positive effects, including higher income that allowed parents to seek higher quality child care and have greater maternal sensitivity 24. Another reassuring finding was that "Center-based care, which is often associated with maternal employment, is not significantly associated with elevated levels of child behavior problems." Earlier studies had raised concerns about child care centers and behavior difficulties.

Earlier NICHD Results

In 2006, the NICHD published the results of a comprehensive study that followed 1,364 children during the course of 15 years and concluded that "Children who were cared for exclusively by their mothers did not develop differently than those who were also cared for by others." It found that children in high-quality child care had higher cognitive and language skills, however, and that "Family and parent features were more important predictors of this development than child care quality." 2

The Benefits of Dual Employment

Having both parents work provides emotional benefits for children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children take pride that their parents have careers and tend to view the world as a less threatening place knowing that mom and dad are in the workplace. The increased income can provide children with increased exposure to new social experiences that contribute to their development. Girls also perceive themselves as having wider career options.

What Matters Most to Children and Parents

Ellen Galinsky, executive editor of Work & Family Life and president of the Families and Work Institute, interviewed a diverse group of 1,000 children, ranging in ages from 8 to 18 about changes they would like to make in their parents' work lives. The results were compiled in the book, “Ask the Children.” Overwhelmingly, kids said wished that their parents would be less stressed and less tired from work and what matters most to them is the quality of their relationship with their parents, not whether they work. It also found that children and parents feel more positive when they value the time spent together, whether it’s sharing a meal, being around each other in a relaxed way or doing a special activity.

Working Is Not the Most Important Variable to Child Development

Galinsky concluded that whether a mother works or stays home is not the most important variable for influencing positive child development. Rather, it's a combination of many factors, including the mother’s comfort level with her decision to work, the quality of child care, the income the job brings in and the warmth and responsiveness she shows to her child. “An at-home mother is not automatically an attentive mother, nor is an employed mother necessarily inattentive,” Galinsky said.