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Dr. David Pelcovitz

The Impact of Working Mothers on Child Development: Empirical Research

Implications for the Orthodox Jewish Community

Over the last five decades, there have been numerous empirical studies that systematically investigated the impact of maternal employment on a child’s cognitive and emotional functioning. While, to my knowledge, similar studies have not been conducted on working mothers in the Orthodox Jewish community, the results of the more general studies should help inform decision making both by individual families and by leaders in the community who are seeking to guide young families.

In recent years, full time employment of mothers has become the norm in the United States. Recent statistics indicate that 75% of mothers work full time in the first year of their child’s life.[1] Since most jobs in the United States only offer maternity leave for the first four to six weeks of a child’s life, the reality is that mothers are generally back to work when their child is still an infant. By definition, the realities of kollel life typically include a mother needing to return to full or part-time work while their children are still young and the financial demands of an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle often make it necessary for both parents to work in non-kollel families.

Research on the Long-term Impact of Maternal Employment

The research on the long-term impact of maternal employment seems to tell a consistent story. In 1991, the National Institute of Child Health and Development initiated a comprehensive longitudinal study in ten centers across the United States to address questions about the relationships between maternal employment, child-care experiences and various outcomes in children. The leaders of this study were among the most respected researchers in the field of developmental psychology, making the conclusions of this research particularly worthy of attention. In a recent review of their findings, they drew the following conclusions:[2]

In terms of the behavioral adjustment of children of middle class or upper middle class mothers who worked when they were infants:

  • Full-time maternal employment begun before the child was three months old was associated with significantly more behavior problems reported by caregivers at age 4½ years and by teachers at first grade;
  • Children whose mothers worked part time before their child was one year old had fewer disruptive behavioral problems than the children of mothers who worked full time before their child’s first birthday. This increased risk for behavioral difficulties was apparent at age three, and during first grade;
  • The pathway through which those protective effects of part-time work operated was through increases in the quality of the home environment and in the mother’s sensitivity.

With regard to cognitive difference in the middle and upper middle class sample, the study found that:

  • Children of mothers who worked full time in the first year of that child’s life received modestly lower child cognitive scores relative to children of mothers who do not work on all eight cognitive outcomes examined. Associations at 4½ years and first grade were roughly similar in size to those at age three;
  • Mothers who worked full time were more likely to have symptoms of depression;
  • Lower cognitive scores were not found in children of mothers who worked part time during the first year of their child’s life.

While these findings point to the need to consider the impact of ful- time maternal employment on children, particularly before they are three months old, some benefits of full-time work were found in the area of the mother’s ability to be sensitive to her child.

Mothers who worked full time tended to use higher-quality substitute childcare and to show higher levels of sensitivity to her child. The researchers speculate that the higher levels of maternal sensitivity seen in employed mothers might have stemmed from their having greater financial security.

Another reliable source of synthesizing the relevant research in this area is to look at the conclusions of meta-analysis – a technique that involves systematically analyzing a group of studies that address the same question, thereby allowing one to discover the common threads of findings of well-designed studies conducted on a given topic. A recent meta-analysis of 69 research studies spanning five decades,[3] evaluating the impact of maternal employment, came to similar conclusions as those summarized above. Early maternal employment was found to be associated with beneficial child outcomes when families were at risk because of either financial challenges or as the result of being single-parent families. In those families, children of working mothers showed higher levels of achievement and lower levels of internalizing behaviors such as anxiety and depression. These benefits are generally explained by a compensatory hypothesis that views work in those families as providing added financial security, lower levels of family stress and enhanced learning opportunities for children who would otherwise be home with a parent who is dealing with the ongoing stress of poverty and child-rearing challenges with little external support.

Employment was associated with negative child outcomes, however, when children were from intact, middle class families that were not at risk financially. In those families, early full-time employment (relative to mothers who were not working outside the home) was associated with later risk for child behavioral difficulties. This finding supports the lost resources hypothesis, which posits that increases in family income do not offset challenges introduced by maternal employment in terms of less supervision, and potentially inferior substitute care. It should be noted, however, that this increased risk was not the case when mothers worked full time when their children were toddlers or preschoolers. It appears that working full time when the child is an infant – a critical period in terms of attachment and emotional and cognitive growth – is more likely to be associated with subsequent difficulties.

Another meta-analysis of 68 studies spanning four decades of research[4] concluded that adolescents whose mothers were employed fared worse on measures of academic achievement. It is hypothesized that this increased risk is related to lower levels of parental supervision in families of employed mothers and points to the need for more structured activities after school.

In summary, the consensus of the empirical studies on the impact of maternal employment finds that child adjustment is tied to a number of relevant variables. In the case of single-parent families, or families otherwise facing poverty, the impact of maternal employment appears to be mostly positive. In the case of middle class or wealthy families when the mother is working full time, particularly in the early months of a child’s life, there appears to be a mildly increased risk for later behavioral problems and subtle cognitive impact relative to mothers who aren’t working or are working part time.

It is very important to note, however, that these conclusions cannot necessarily be generalized to our community. There are numerous variables that may differ. For example, in the case of kollel families, the possibility of a more flexible schedule may result in fathers having the potential of greater involvement in their child’s life than in the case of a father who is employed full time in a traditional job. Similarly, grandparents might be more actively involved in caring for their grandchildren – a factor that is generally associated with improved childcare and improved outcomes.[5]

Research on the Impact of Substitute Childcare

Longitudinal studies of the association between child academic and behavioral functioning and type and frequency of childcare when they were younger finds that both quality and quantity of childcare is associated with a child’s later behavior and achievement. For example, when the sample studied in the NICHD longitudinal study referenced earlier is evaluated a decade after leaving childcare,[6] the researchers found that childcare quality was associated with improved cognitive and behavioral functioning at age 15, with escalating positive effects at higher levels of childcare quality. Similarly, in that study, higher quality care predicted higher cognitive academic achievement (e.g. better vocabularies) at age 4½, as well as during elementary school.

At 4½ years of age, the number of hours in childcare was associated with higher levels of externalizing behaviors such as non-compliance and aggression. The more hours spent in childcare, the greater the likelihood of difficult behavior. Similarly, more hours of non-relative care in the first 4½ years of a child’s life predicted greater risk-taking and impulsivity at age 15.

In a fascinating series of studies,[7] researchers found that childcare quality is related to a child’s cortisol levels (a hormone released by the adrenal gland in response to stress). When children receive high-quality childcare, characterized by high levels of emotional support and cognitive stimulation, they are less likely to have increased cortisol levels over the course of the day. Such children showed cortisol levels that were more similar to children who spend their day in the less stressful environment of their own homes.

Guidelines for Evaluating Quality of Childcare

Given the enduring impact the quality of childcare has on child adjustment, it is important for parents to understand what researchers have determined are the core characteristics that define a high-quality program. The NICHD research team developed the following set of nine caregiver behaviors that can guide a parent who is observing caregivers on a typical day in their program[8]:

If parents are trying to assess a particular program, they should pick out a child in the program who reminds them of their own child and in half-minute intervals observe whether the caregiver:

  1. responds to the child’s vocalizations;
  2. reads aloud to the child;
  3. asks the child a question;
  4. praises or speaks affectionately to the child;
  5. teaches the child;
  6. directs other positive talk to the child;
  7. has close physical contact with the child;
  8. is occupied (as opposed to doing nothing), or
  9. is occupied actively with the child as opposed to watching television.

While all nine of these behaviors were found to be associated with quality of care, the most important was the kind of verbal interaction used by the caregiver. Those who asked questions, praised, taught and, in general, created a warm, enveloping atmosphere by interacting with the child as an individual rather than only with the group and by talking to the child in positive ways contributed to the high level of quality that later predicted more positive cognitive and behavioral outcomes for these children a decade later. Other important caregiver characteristics include a disciplinary style that is characterized by offering children choices and gentle suggestions rather than harsh and punitive ultimatums.[9]

In addition to the quality of caretaker-child interactions, the characteristics of the physical space of the childcare environment has also been found to be relevant. Researchers have found that having at least twenty-five square feet per child is important. Day care settings that have less space are more likely to have children who are aggressive and less intellectually stimulated.[10] Since orderly and predictable environments are so important for children, it is not surprising that researchers have documented the importance of settings that allow children privacy and separate space for quiet and loud play.[11] Having a wide variety of age-appropriate play materials has been found to maximize the intellectual challenges in daycare settings.[12] When materials are limited in quantity and variety, children have been found to fight more and to show less progress in language and social development.

Another important characteristic of daycare is the balance between structure and free play. Programs that provide all structure with no time for unstructured play have been found to result in defiant, stressed and unhappy children. In contrast, programs that completely lack structure result in children with lower levels of social skills. Researchers therefore conclude that the ideal is a balance between adult-initiated group work that is educational in nature and free play that is directed by the child, yet includes activities that promote exploration, thinking and social interaction.[13]

The opportunity to play with even one other child on a regular basis is associated with more gains in both social and cognitive areas. This finding argues for the benefit of giving young children the opportunity to have repeated play sessions with the same group of children. The staff-child ratio is an important component determining the optimal size of a childcare center. Research finds that in the care of infants, the staff-infant ratio should be one to one. The sensitivity of staff to the infant’s needs often deteriorates when the ratio goes to one staff member for two or more infants. Obviously, as children get older such intensive ratios are no longer essential. In one study, when the ratio for toddlers improved from 8:1 to 6:1, teachers relied less on negative discipline and became more responsive to the toddler’s needs.[14]


1. Awareness about Full Time versus Part Time

Although based on relatively small levels of statistical significance, the findings of a number of well-executed studies suggest that when parents have a choice early in their child’s life (particularly during the first three months), they should consider working part-time. During that critical period, when there is an option, the father should make an effort to be present in as active a parenting role as possible. Similarly, if at all feasible, grandparents should be more actively recruited to take care of their grandchildren when they are infants and both parents are working full time. This has an added benefit since research has found that actively-involved grandparents serve a crucial role as a protective buffer against the potential harmful influences of parental stress.[15] It is important to note that the potential dangers of full-time versus part-time work are only found in middle and upper middle class families. This recommendation is therefore most relevant for the segment of our community that falls in that category.

The finding that full-time mothers are at times at greater risk for depression should not be taken lightly. Researchers have found that infants are clearly impacted by their mother’s depression. Infants of parents with depression have been found to have difficulties with self-quieting, lower activity levels and decreased ability to attend. Relative to the children of non-depressed parents, their affect tends to be more negative, as typified by increased likelihood of expressing sadness and anger.

Equally important are the studies on the role of chronic stress in parenting.[16] Powerless parents more likely to:

  • be hyper-vigilant with their child;
  • focus on the negative, while ignoring improved behavior;
  • engage in coercive and punitive parenting;
  • misread neutral child cues as malevolent, and
  • derogate child in efforts at power repair.

This style of parenting frequently engenders high levels of resistance and at-risk behavior in the adolescent.

The implications of this body of research are that high stress levels, and particularly depression in stressed-out parents, can have long term implications on child development. The community needs to take this into account when prioritizing the need to provide young parents with support.

2. Adolescent Risk

The finding that adolescents in families with two working parents might be at somewhat increased risk for difficulty points to the need to support working parents of adolescents in providing adequate supervision of their child. It is essential that parents of adolescents receive support in learning how to monitor their adolescent in a manner that strikes the balance between love and limits. It is appropriate to require adolescents:

(a) to describe where they intend to go and with whom;

(b) to get permission before going out, both on school nights and on weekends, and

(c) to explain where they have been, what they have been doing, and with whom.

Working parents need to attend to and track their adolescent’s whereabouts and activities by regularly asking them about their school and leisure-time experiences. It can be helpful to keep in touch with the parents of their children’s friends so that they can be used as a source of information.

Such effective monitoring of adolescent activity needs to take place in the context of a close relationship that is nurtured by open parental communication and attention to their adolescent. It is important to keep in mind the body of studies that found that for every night a week that parents have dinner with their children there is a corresponding decreased risk for substance abuse in that child.[17] Teens who have dinner with their families five or more times a week are almost twice as likely to receive A’s in school compared to teens who have dinner with their families two or fewer times a week (20 percent vs. 12 percent). Teens who receive A’s and B’s are at half the risk of substance abuse as those who receive grades of C or lower.

3. Quality of Substitute Childcare

Perhaps the most important lesson of the research is the importance of high-quality childcare for children. The key elements of what matters in substitute care have been clearly demonstrated. Unfortunately, parents in our community are given very little in the way of evidence-based information on how to evaluate a quality program. The guidelines summarized above should prove helpful in providing parents with a cognitive map of what to look for.

Data from a recent survey of parents of adolescents in the Orthodox Jewish community did not find any differences in adolescent outcomes for those mothers who reported being at-home mothers as compared with mothers who held other professions[18]. However, this was just a first glimpse of the subject. Additional research needs to be done to determine how the various issues addressed in this paper might present differently in the Orthodox Jewish community. It is clear that we need to do a better job of guiding the next generation of parents on how to navigate the challenges of young parenthood. Perhaps chosson and kallah classes can include a segment on some of the guidelines discussed in this paper and rabbinic leaders can set a more mindful agenda about how to marshal the resources of our community to prioritize the importance of provision of high-quality childcare. I can think of no priority as important as helping parents nourish their young child’s developing mind and soul by better equipping parents to manage the balance between work, parenting and marriage.


David Pelcovitz, Ph.D. holds the Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Chair in Psychology and Jewish Education at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education.

[1] Brooks-Gunn, J. Han, W., Waldfogel, J. (2010), First-year maternal employment and child development in the first 7 years: VIII. Discussion and Conclusions. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Vol. 75(2), pp. 96-113.

[2] Brooks-Gunn, J. Han, W., Waldfogel, J. (2010), First-year maternal employment and child development in the first 7 years: Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Vol 75(2)

[3] Lucas-Thompson, R., Goldberg, W., Prause, J., (2010)Maternal work early in the lives of children and its distal associations with achievement and behavior problems: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136(6)915-942.

[4]Goldberg, W., Prause, J., Lucas-Thompson, R. Himsel, A., (2008) Maternal employment and children’s achievement in context: A meta-analysis of four decades of research. Psychological Bulletin, 134(1), 77-108.

[5] The NICHD Early Childcare Research Network (2005) Childcare and child development: Results from the NICHD study of early childcare and youth development.; New York, NY, Guilford Press

[6] Vandell, D., Belsky, J., Burchinal, M., Steinberg, L., Vandergrift, N. (2010) Do effects of early childcare extend to age 15 years? Results from the NICHD study of early childcare and youth development.Child Development, 81(3), 737-756.

[7] Tout, K, , De Haan, M., Kipp-Campbell, E. & Gunnar, M. (1998) Social behavior correlates of adrenocortical activity in daycare: Gender differences and time of day effects. Child Development: 69:1247-1262.

[8] The NICHD Early Childcare Research Network (2005) Childcare and child development: Results from the NICHD study of early childcare and youth development.; page 81, New York, NY, Guilford Press

[9] Clarke-Stewart, A. &Allhusen, V. (2005) What We Know About Childcare , Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press,.

[10] Maxwell, L. (1996) Multiple effects of home and day care crowding. Environment and Behavior 28:494- 511

[11] Laike, T. (1997) The impact of daycare environments on children’s mood and behavior. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 38:209-218

[12] Clarke-Stewart, A. &Allhusen, V. (2005) What We Know About Childcare p. 113-114, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press

[13] Stipek, D., Feiler, R. Daniels, D. & Milburn, S. (1995) Effects of differential instructional approaches on young children’s achievemen and motivation. Child Development 66L209-223

[14] Howes, C. (1996) The Florida Childcare Improvement Study< New York: Families and Work Institute

[15] Lussier, G. (2002) Support Across Two Generations Children’s Closeness to Grandparents Following Parental Divorce and Remarriage. Journal of Family Psychology, 16:363-376

[16] Bugental, D. B., Lyon, J. E., Krantz, J. and Cortez, V., & Krantz, J. (1997). Who’s the boss? Accessibility of dominance ideation among individuals with low perceptions of interpersonal power. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 1297-1309.

[17] The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (2007) The importance of family dinner, New York, Columbia University

[18] Cahn, J. (2011). Adolescent children of newly-Orthodox Jewish parents: Family functioning, parenting, and community integration as correlates of adjustment. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Yeshiva University Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, New York.

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