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Maternal employment & development of children

New study by the ISS

Mutter mit Kind

Did you know that mothers’ work history doesn’t affect their children’s early vocabulary and reasoning?

Potential benefits and risks of mothers’ employment for child development are the subject of heated scientific and public debate. By increasing family income, working mothers may foster development. However, this may come at the cost of reducing the quality and quantity of parent-child interactions that are crucial for small children. In a recent study, ISS researcher Michael Kühhirt and Markus Klein from the University of Strathclyde found that children with similar family background, develop comparable vocabulary and reasoning abilities even if their mothers’ work histories in the first 5 years after birth differ vastly. Therefore, both exaggerated hopes and fears with regard to the consequences of mothers’ employment for children may be unfounded, at least with regard to early language acquisition and cognitive ability.

Study approach
These results are based on 2,200 children of the Growing Up in Scotland study, who were followed from roughly 10 months after birth until around their fifth birthday. As a measure of vocabulary at age 5, children named objects from a picture booklet. Reasoning ability at age 5 was assessed by requiring children to find common aspects between a given picture and objects displayed in a picture book. Mothers’ employment history and other important characteristics were obtained through annually repeated surveys in the five years after birth. 

Results of the study
The study was novel in that it looked at the relation of mothers’ employment with children’s development not only at one particular time point but that it compared the effects of different employment patterns over time. This is important because any impact of maternal employment is likely to unfold only after a longer period of exposure. However, differences in the developmental outcomes at age 5, for the most part, seem to be driven by characteristics influencing maternal employment decisions in the first five years after birth, such as mothers’ education and family structure. While the benefits of a working mother may be limited for children, at least when it comes to the cognitive measures under study here, that the study also found no evidence for harmful effects, is an important implication given universal attempts to increase the share of working mothers. While this is the case at the population level, future research may look at the effect of early maternal employment histories on developmental outcomes among different subgroups. 

Did you know that …?
On the website of the Institute of Sociology and Social Psychology (ISS) researchers report regularly on their latest results.