Are young children better off when their mothers stay home or when they go to daycare? It’s a question that has been hotly debated for decades and will likely never be settled, but a new study by Boston College researchers suggests that low-income kids with working mothers perform better in kindergarten than their counterparts whose mothers stay home.
The study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, followed 10,700 children born in 2001, and found that when low-income mothers returned to the workforce before their babies were nine months old, their children performed better in standardized tests of reading, math and vocabulary in kindergarten. When low-income mothers returned to work when their kids were between 9 months and two years old, their children had fewer behavioral problems in kindergarten, according to teacher surveys.
Meanwhile, children of middle-income women showed no significant difference in behavior or cognitive abilities whether their mothers stayed home or not, and the kids of high-income mothers showed a slight decrease in ability when their mothers worked. Prior studies of kids born in the 80s and 90s had suggested some negative effects of childcare across all income levels.
Caitlin McPherran Lombardi, lead author of the study, told the American Psychological Association: “Different cultural attitudes, more readily available and higher-quality child care and more fathers participating in childrearing are other possible reasons for the difference.”
She also noted that continued employment seems to make a big difference in the low-income mothers’ lives too—58 percent of mothers in the study returned to work by the time their child was 9 months old.
“Most mothers today return to full-time work soon after childbirth, and they are also likely to remain in the labor market five years later, suggesting the employment decisions soon after childbirth are pivotal to determining mothers’ long-term employment,” she said. “Our findings suggest that children from families with limited economic resources may benefit from paid maternal leave policies that have been found to encourage mothers’ employment after childbearing.”