UMass Amherst Researcher: No Developmental Differences for Children With Working Moms

March 1, 1999

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AMHERST, Mass. - A new study conducted by University of Massachusetts psychologist Elizabeth Harvey finds that mothers who work outside the home don’t do significant harm to young children. The findings are reported in the March issue of Developmental Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association.

Harvey looked at young children’s self-esteem, mental development, and behavior. She found that those with working mothers in the first three years of the child’s life were not significantly different from those whose mother stayed at home.

"This study suggests that there are no substantial negative effects of early maternal employment on children''s later development," Harvey says. "I think this also suggests that there is not one right way of doing things for all families. For some families it may be best for both parents to be employed and for some families it may be best for one parent to stay home."

The research is based on analysis of data collected in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which includes approximately 12,600 individuals who have been interviewed annually since 1979 when they were between the ages of 14 and 22. Starting in 1986, the children of women in the group were also assessed. Harvey examined the long-term effects of parental employment during the first three year’s of the children’s lives.

Harvey looked at a variety of factors, including whether the mother worked outside the home, how soon she returned to work after childbirth, how much the mother worked, and whether employment was continuous. Children whose mothers worked long hours had slightly lower scores on tests of vocabulary and student achievement, but those effects were small and disappeared over time, Harvey says. Children of mothers who returned to work earlier were somewhat less compliant, but the effect disappeared by age 5 or 6.

She also looked at the fathers’ employment status and working hours. No significant effects of fathers’ employment on the children’s development were found, according to Harvey.

Overall, Harvey says, "Parents are in the best position for deciding what''s best for their own families and they should feel good about whatever decision they do make."