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Volume 19, Number 1
January/February 2003

Do Working Mothers Hurt Their Children's Capacity to Learn?

How media reports about learning can oversimplify data—and alarm readers


It was, as one NPR commentator put it, the kind of research finding that "drives working moms berserk." Last summer, respected researchers at Columbia University published a study in the journal Child Development linking the scores of three-year-olds on measures of cognitive and verbal development to whether their mothers had worked full-time during the children's first nine months of life. A New York Times headline announced the key finding: "Study Links Working Mothers to Slower Learning." Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman confessed that it "registered a full 'eek' on the guilt meter." Business Week columnist Toddi Gutner guessed that she was joining many other working mothers in "assessing the damage they had inflicted on their children."

Of course, the conclusion about the effect of mothers' full-time employment emerged from a complicated analysis, and the researchers took pains to urge parents not to jump to simplistic conclusions or second-guess decisions they have made. But research results that coincide so exactly with parental anxieties have a way of sticking in the brain. As the father of twin girls who spent a good part of their first year in day care, I found my own initial impression of the headline lingering, uncomfortably.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    J. Brooks-Gunn, W. Han, and J. Waldfogel. "Maternal Employment and Child Cognitive Outcomes in the First Three Years of Life: The NICHD Study of Early Child Care." Child Development 74, no. 4 (2002): 1052-1072.

    E. Dearing, K. McCartney, and B. Taylor. "Change in Family Income-to-Needs Matters More for Children with Less." Child Development 72, no 6 (2001):1779-1793.

    N. Baydar and J. Brooks-Gunn. "Effects of Maternal Employment and Child Care Arrangements in Infancy on Preschoolers' Cognitive and Behavioral Outcomes: Evidence From the Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth." Developmental Psychology 27, no 6 (1991): 932-945.

    G.J. Duncan and J. Brooks-Gunn. "Family Poverty, Welfare Reform, and Child Development." Child Development 71, no 1 (2000): 188-196.

    NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. "Child Outcomes When Child Care Center Classes Meet Recommended Standards for Quality." American Journal of Public Health 89, no. 7 (1999): 1072-1077.