Debate about Working and Children
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.
THE ONGOING DEBATE ABOUT
CHILDREN AND PARENTAL EMPLOYMENT
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
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
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
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.
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.
MOVING BEYOND THE EITHER/OR
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.