Parents Need Quality Jobs, Not Just Any Jobs, to Boost Child Life Chances

Richard V. Reeves and
Reeves headshot
Richard V. Reeves President - American Institute for Boys and Men

Joanna Venator
Joanna Venator Senior Research Assistant

May 20, 2014

How does parents’ employment status help or hurt children’s well-being and future opportunities? Carolyn J. Heinrich’s piece in the new volume of The Future of Children takes the conversation about the role of maternal employment beyond the heated “Mommy Wars” of the opinion pages and grounds it in the ongoing discussion among social scientists about early childhood development, parenting, and social mobility.

Working Parents: Good or Bad for the Kids?

Care during the early years of child’s life is incredibly important. Forming secure attachments to a parent and caregiver within the first months of a child’s life translates to better social skills and outcomes later in life. When parents return to work within the first weeks of a child’s life, it affects their ability to form a secure and stable bond with their infant that promotes this kind of attachment. 

Children whose parents return to work very quickly are:

  • Less likely to be breastfed: Mothers who return to work sooner after a child’s birth and work longer hours are less likely to breastfeed. Breastfeeding is associated with better childhood health, a lower likelihood of adult obesity and enhanced neurological development.
  • More likely to do worse upon entering school: Children whose mothers returned to work within the first year of their life scored lower on school-readiness measures and have lower reading and math schools during school.
  • More likely to receive lower quality child-care: Studies of single mothers who were affected by welfare reform’s work mandates found using informal childcare contributed to the adverse impacts of maternal employment on children’s test scores.

On the other hand, families with two working parents have more income to use to improve their child’s quality of life. In particular, research shows that for “single-parent or low-income families, the positive effects of additional income … are likely to outweigh the potential negative effects of less time caring for children, as long as the substitute care is not of poor quality.” Furthermore, periods of parental unemployment can cause considerable financial and mental distress that affect both the parent and child’s well-being.

Better Jobs for Parents = Better Outcomes for Children

Heinrich outlines three policies that could improve both parents’ job conditions and children’s well-being:

  1. Paid Parental Leave: Paid parental leave increases duration of breastfeeding and the amount of time a child spends with his parents, which improves the child’s educational attainment and adult income. The U.S. is one of only three countries that do not mandate some form of paid parental leave. Additionally, low-income families are both the most in need of paid parental leave and the least likely to have access to it.
  1. Workplace flexibility: Low-income parents are much less likely to control the hours they work, leading to unpredictable schedules, long hours, and work shifts at night – all of which contribute to parental stress and hurt child well-being.
  1. Reforms to unemployment insurance: Make sure funds help those experiencing significant long-term wage losses to maintain their living standards to prevent disruptions to family life.