Working Families - School-age Children
Most of the research over the years has compared school-age children of employed and nonemployed mothers in terms of academic and social competence. The results have failed to confirm the once widely held belief that mothers' employment would have negative effects on children. Indeed, effects seem mainly positive. The results, however, have not been the same across gender and social class. The most consistent pattern of positive outcomes has been for daughters of employed mothers.
In an extensive 1999 study, Hoffman and Young-blade examined how the mother's employment status affected child outcomes and then focused on why these effects occur. Daughters with employed mothers were found to have better academic and social skills, more independence, and a greater sense of efficacy, a view that their own actions are important determinants of what happens to them. Having an employed mother itself was related to the daughter's view that women are competent, and this was enhanced when there was a less traditional division of labor between parents. The view that women are competent increased the girls' sense of efficacy, and efficacy predicted social and academic competence. In addition, the data indicated that employed mothers across social class, mothers' marital status, and ethnicity, were less likely to use authoritarian and coercive discipline. This discipline style was particularly harmful for girls and was associated with a low sense of efficacy and shy, withdrawn behavior. Thus the employment status of mothers was linked to family effects that helped explain child outcomes.
Although the finding of higher scores on various cognitive and social adjustment measures for daughters of employed mothers has been consistent over the years, the results for sons have been mixed. Some of the earlier studies found higher academic scores for sons of employed mothers, others found no difference, and a few found lower scores for sons, but only in the middle class. In the study by Hoffman and Youngblade, children with working mothers scored higher on all cognitive measures across gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and mothers' marital status. The researchers suggested that the differences between the earlier studies and their own 1999 study reflected the change in fathers' roles over the decades.
Nevertheless, while the sons of employed mothers in the middle class obtained higher cognitive scores, they did not show better social adjustment. In fact, ratings by teachers and peers indicated that, in the middle class, sons of employed mothers who worked full-time engaged in more acting-out and aggressive behavior at school. This pattern was in contrast to sons of employed mothers in the blue-collar class and in poverty who showed less acting-out behavior, less aggression, and better social adjustment generally. An explanation for this class difference given by the researchers was that, although full-time homemakers across class used more authoritarian discipline than employed mothers, the discipline in the middle class was rarely harsh or severe. In the lower socioeconomic groups, and particularly among poor single mothers, this was not the case and harsh discipline was more common for full-time homemakers, though, paradoxically, so was permissiveness.
In addition, in the blue-collar and poverty classes, employed mothers were more likely than full-time homemakers to use a style of control developmental psychologists call "authoritative." Authoritative parenting is a style where parents support their control with reasons and explanations and allow some input from the child. It is a more common pattern in the middle class generally, but there it was not related to the mother's employment status. Thus, differences between employed and nonemployed mothers in the quality of parenting were more pronounced in the blue-collar and poverty groups, and these differences were linked to child outcomes.
An important reason maternal employment made such a difference in mothers' parenting styles in the lower-class families has to do with the mothers' sense of well-being. Although previous research has often shown that employed mothers have a higher sense of well-being than full-time homemakers, this result is most consistently found for mothers in the blue-collar and poverty groups. This was also true in the Hoffman and Youngblade study. In these lower-income families, the employed mothers scored lower on a measure of depressive mood and higher on a measure of positive morale. Further, for this group, the mothers' sense of well-being was shown to be the link between employment and more positive parenting styles. Employment status was not related to either measure in the middle class.
It may seem strange that employment has a more positive effect on mothers whose work may not be as interesting as the work available to more educated mothers. What these mothers value, however, is not the job itself, but the increased social support and stimulation provided by coworkers, the marked advantages that their wages bring to their families, and the greater sense of control that they feel over their lives. This is particularly true for poor single mothers who are often lonely and depressed, and for whom wages can make a major economic difference.