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Reframing the Debate about Working and Children

© 1999, by Ellen Galinsky

Why have we never asked children about how they feel about working parents? Yes, of course, they tell us, from time to time, whether we want to hear from them or not. But why is it that whenever I mention that we are studying children's views of their employed parents, parents inevitably respond, "I wonder what my children would say?" They wonder because they have never asked.

Why has a book like this one never been written, a comprehensive study like the one I have conducted, never been done? After all, increasingly dual-earner families have become the norm. In all this time, have we
not wanted to know what our children think?

The parents who first wonder what their children would say, just as inevitably stop short and add, "I don't know if I want to know." "I would feel too guilty." "My child might say awful things about me." And for many mothers: "My child might tell me to stop working -- to stay home."

Yet there is curiosity: "Don't tell me about what my own children say, but do tell me about what other people's children think."

Although many of us probably have not asked our own children, we are ready to listen. Over the years that I have worked on issues of work and family life, I have seen an evolution in our interest in understanding social change. At different times, there is a "societal readiness" to take on certain issues. I believe that we are ready to listen because it is finally the right time. More importantly, we are ready to listen because we really do need to know.

Recently, the Families and Work Institute cohosted a meeting of business leaders at which a leading neuroscientist, Harry Chugani of Wayne State University, presented an overview of what we know about the brain development of young children. He showed slides revealing that the brain of the child is wired by experience, both positive and negative. There were several other presentations, and then a strong discussion among the business leaders present. As the meeting was wrapping up, the moderator asked the audience, "What should the business community do in response to this information about the brain development of young children?" The room stilled; the heated discussion of moments before seemed frozen in time. Finally, Faith Wohl, president of the Child Care Action Campaign, broke the silence. "For the twenty years that I worked for a corporation," she began, "whenever the topic turned to the business community's responsibility for young children, we would say, 'That's the government's role.' Then I went to work for the federal government, and there we would say, 'It's the business community's role.' This subject is a hot potato, passed from unwilling player to unwilling player. And it is because we are still ambivalent about whether or not mothers should work."

Yet our feelings about whether or not mothers should work have changed over the past 30 years. They have changed because of what I think of as a national conversation about mothers' and fathers' roles in work and family life. Including children and their views of their working parents is the logical next step in this conversation.

Why do I call it a conversation? Essentially because the debate about the changing roles of women and men has taken place publicly. A controversial or tragic occurrence--a school shooting, a study, a book, a television show, a custody case, a trial--will arise that captures the public's attention because it presents a topic about which we are unsure or strongly divided. This topic will be widely discussed--at gatherings at work, around our kitchen tables, at parties with our friends and neighbors. One can almost chart the course of evolving public opinion by looking at these incidents.

Importantly, the conversation thus far has hinged on an either/or premise. I've found, however, that bringing both children and parents into the picture moves us beyond a black-and-white view.


Is having a working mother good or bad for children? The debate in the 1960s centered on the question, Is having a working mother good or bad for children? It was first fueled by studies of children in orphanages showing that children separated from their mothers for long periods and raised in environmentally depressed conditions failed to thrive, even though they received adequate physical care. Some social scientists and experts drew the conclusion that therefore mothers' working was bad for children.' This opinion was countered by a number of researchers who said that the prolonged separation from mothers of children in an orphanage and the daily separations involved in child care could not be compared; therefore the jury was out on working mothers.

Between the 1960s and the late 1980s, a number of reviews of the research showed that there was little reason to be concerned about older children whose mothers worked. Although the public didn't necessarily agree, the public debate then shifted to infants. In 1988--perhaps not so coincidentally the very first year that a majority of mothers of infants were in the work force -- Jay Belsky of Pennsylvania State University reported that a few studies indicated that infants whose mothers worked more than 20 hours a week in their child's first year of life were less likely to become securely attached to their mothers Since insecure attachments have been shown to lead to developmental problems in older children, and since some studies indicated that children with early experiences in child care were more aggressive, a public alarm was sounded.

Researchers immediately lined up on both sides of this issue on the talk shows, and articles were published pro and con. Ultimately, the National Academy of Sciences convened a meeting bringing together what was informally called "the warring parties in the debate." This meeting led to a longitudinal study in the 1990s of approximately 1300 children from ten communities by ten teams of researchers funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

Can mothers who work have just as good relationships with their children as mothers at home? How do working parents feel about this issue? In our Ask the Children study, we asked a representative group of employed parents how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: "A mother who works outside the home can have just as good a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work." Overall, 76 percent of employed parents agree somewhat or strongly with this statement. One would expect employed parents to endorse their own lifestyle, but it is noteworthy that one in four parents disagrees.

Who are these parents who disagree? Fathers are much more likely to disagree (30 percent) than mothers (18 percent). However, there are no differences between fathers and mothers in dual-earner couples on this issue, whereas--as one might expect--there are large differences between fathers with employed spouses and those with spouses at home.

Among all family types, employed mothers who are single parents are the most likely to agree that mothers who work can have just as good relationships with their children as mothers who are at home. In fact, 90 percent agree with this statement. Thus, mothers who have little or no choice about working are the most adamant in their belief that mothers' working doesn't harm the mother-child relationship.

Over time, there has been a steady increase in the number of people who feel that employed mothers can have just as good a relationship with their children as at-home mothers. I attribute this largely to the gradual social and cultural change as women have moved into the work force in larger and larger numbers and as families have become more dependent on their income. Twenty years ago, the same question was included in the 1977 Quality of Employment Survey conducted for the Department of Labor. Among all employees--whether or not they are parents--the number climbed from 58 percent who agreed in 1977 to 67 percent in 1997, according to the Families and Work Institute's 1997 National Study of the Changing Workforce conducted by researchers Terry Bond and Jennifer Swanberg, and me.

In fact, one working mother we interviewed for the Ask the Children study said:

"I've seen growth in [my daughter] and I think a lot of that has to do with my own growth, and I think a lot of my own growth has to do with the fact that I had that extension of my life in the world of working I may have had other interests and done other things had I not worked and been a stay-at-home mom, but I think I gained more and was able to give more to her as a result of having that amount of independence in my own life."

Is this mother speaking from experience or is this wishful thinking? The research shows that parents are speaking from experience. The most definitive study on the subject, conducted by the NICHD research team, found that mothers' working and a child's being in child care in themselves do not affect the bond between the mother and the child. It is very simple. Infants are more likely to be securely attached to their mothers when their mothers are warm and responsive. And mothers can be warm and responsive whether they are employed or not. A parent we interviewed put it well:

"I think you can be just as good a parent working or staying at home. It depends on where the parent is coming from and what their skills are."

The NICHD study did find cases in which mothers' working had a negative impact on the mother-child bond. This was more likely to occur when mothers were less warm and responsive and when the children experienced one or more of the following conditions: poor-quality child care, more than minimal amounts of time in child care, or more frequent changes in the child care arrangement.

These nuances have been largely lost in the public debate, however, dismissed by the people who want to see maternal employment as an either/or proposition: A working mother is either bad or good for children. They are also dismissed by the people who see this finding as an indictment of mothers who stay at home: If working doesn't harm children, then what's the justification for staying at home? Mothers at home will say that they know that their being at home has been good for their children. And typically they are right. Typically, so are the mothers who say that their working has been good for their children. Because it is not an either/or proposition. It depends on the people and the circumstances of their lives. And what's right for one person may not be right for another.

So, although the debate to this point has assumed an either/or stance, the research indicates that "it depends"--on the quality of care the child receives at home and on the child's experiences in child care.

Is it better if men earn money and women care for the home and children? Breadwinning is another highly charged issue in the debate about parents' roles. So we asked parents to respond to the statement "It is much better for everyone involved if the man earns the money and the woman takes care of the home and the children." Fifty-one percent of employed parents somewhat or strongly agree.

Again, employed fathers are more likely to support this statement than employed mothers. The difference, however; is not between fathers and mothers in dual-earner families. It is fathers with wives at home who feel most strongly about this statement.

One might ask, Why is there such strong support for the traditional family when fewer and fewer families are living that way? Among married fathers in the labor force, the proportion with employed wives had climbed from 49 percent in 1977 to 67 percent by 1997. Arlene Skolnick, a family historian at the University of California at Berkeley, argues that in any period of social transformation such as the one we are in at the advent of the twenty-first century, people look at the recent past with nostalgia. They grasp at old images before developing new ways of handling reality.

I believe that the views of employed parents are more complicated than those who would interpret this finding as a call for mothers to leave the work force and return home realize. Why? Because my study also finds that more than seven in ten employed mothers and fathers agree that it would be OK for the woman to be the economic provider and the man to be the nurturer. Most employed parents are not simply endorsing the traditional family; add up to 100 percent due to rounding. rather;
they seem to be yearning for a less stressful life. It certainly seems as if both mothers and fathers would like someone at home who cares for them and the children.


As you can see, our national debate about working and children has been conducted as if the answer is either yes or no, as if one path is inherently good and the other bad. But more than four decades of research has shown that reality is not so simple. Outcomes for children "depend" primarily on what parents do with their children when they are together and secondarily on what happens to the children when they are away from their parents.

Until now, the language that we have used to describe work and family life similarly has been either/or language. Implicit in this way of speaking is the notion that work and family are "separate, non-overlapping worlds." In 1997, Rosalind Barnett of Brandeis University wrote that we have to move beyond the notion of separate spheres toward understanding that work and family are inextricably interconnected, and that, in fact, multiple roles can energize rather than deplete us.

There is also an either/or notion of balancing work and family, which has been endlessly promulgated in books and other media. Balancing connotes a set of scales. If one side is up, the other side is down. The goal, as working parents typically see it, is to keep both sides even or equal. Although the notion of balance is correct in considering both work and family on the same continuum, the connections are more dynamic than balance implies. Both sides can be up and both sides can be down. What works for one person doesn't work for another.

Finally, there is the concept of quality time versus quantity time. This concept implies that either the amount of time or the quality of time is more important. Yet, as you will see, this study of parents and children makes it very evident that one can't separate the amount of time from what happens during that time.

When we ask the children, not only are we able to see what we do in a new way, we also reframe the debate. In the chapters that follow, I will suggest a new language to describe today's realities and new ways of handling them. Asking the children is clearly the next step in what has been an ongoing national conversation. From my many discussions with parents across the country, I believe that we are ready to listen to children and in so doing to embrace a more accurate and more empowering view.

The above is an excerpt of Ellen Galinsky's book, Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents, (William Morrow, 1999, $25.00US). Ellen Galinsky is co-founder and president of the Families and Work Institute, a Manhattan-based nonprofit center for research on the changing family, workplace, and community. A leading authority and speaker on work-family issues, she serves on many commissions and task forces and has worked with many companies in the United States and abroad. For twenty-five years she was on the faculty at the Bank Street College of Education, where she helped institute the field of work and family life. Her ground-breaking studies make nationwide headlines again and again. She is the author of sixteen books, including The Preschool Years (coauthored with Judy David) and The Six Stages of Parenthood. She lives with her family in upstate New York.

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