Do children of working mums do better at school?

A study has found maternal employment has a positive effect on children's academic performance.

A study has found maternal employment has a positive effect on children's academic performance.

It's a trade-off that troubles even the most hard-headed working parent: time at work versus time with the kids.

Mothers are especially prone to anxiety over the clash between family and job. Even though the workforce participation rate of mothers has surged in the past 30 years, there's still a strong expectation in Australia that mothers will be very present with children in their early years.

But now researchers have made a discovery that will comfort guilt-ridden career women: children with a working mother do better in high school than those with a stay-at-home mum.

That's what a team of policy analysts and economists from the US and Denmark found when they examined unique survey data that tracked 135,000 Danish children from birth until the age of 15.


The survey recorded children's school grades over time as well as detailed information about their households, including the work status of their parents.

This allowed the researchers to compare the academic results of 15-year-olds whose mothers worked with those who had stay- at-home mothers.

Because the survey sample was so large the researchers were able to control some of the natural variables that affect children's educational outcomes.

This meant they could compare children who were otherwise similar except for the employment status of their mothers.

They examined the association between a child's ''grade point average'' in year 9 and his or her mother's work patterns during the first three years of the child's life, and separately during the first 15 years of the child's life.

After an exhaustive analysis the research team, led by Professor Rachel Dunifon from the US's Cornell University, concluded ''maternal employment has a positive effect on children's academic performance'' even for those whose mothers worked during the first three years of life.

The best performers had mothers who were part-time employees.

The grades for a child whose mother worked between 10 and 19 hours a week when they were aged under four years of age had grades that were on average 2.6 per cent higher when they reached year 9 than an ''otherwise similar'' child whose mother did not work at all.

The researchers found the beneficial effect of maternal employment was even larger when a mother's full 15-year work history was taken into account.

These results challenge the conventional wisdom in Australia and raise an important question: why might children with a mother who works do better over time than those with a mother who stays home?

The most obvious reason is the additional financial resources. Dual-income families have more resources to spend on the education and ''enrichment'' of their children, including coaching classes, music and sport.

But a factor often ignored in debates about work and family is the benefits that mothers derive from working.

Professor Dunifon and her co-authors note that the higher grades achieved by teenagers with working mothers could be the result of ''improved mental well-being'' among the mothers who work.

Women who have satisfying jobs ''reap psychological, social or other benefits of employment in ways that benefit children'', they conclude in their paper The Effect of Maternal Employment on Children's Academic Performance, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Studies from a variety of countries and cultures have shown that work - and the financial security that comes with it - can improve mothers' sense of self-esteem and confidence. This, in turn, benefits their children.

However, there was another dynamic at work in the Danish study: good childcare.

Denmark has invested heavily in its childcare system, which has become internationally renowned for high quality, easy access and low cost.

This first-class childcare seems to have been a factor in the superior academic results achieved by year 9 students with working mothers.

There's an important lesson here for Australia.

Now that most families need two incomes to survive, improving our childcare system is more important than ever.


  • As a teacher I don't know whether or not I am seeing any hard, objective evidence to prove academic or intellectual superiority. I certainly do have a lot of baby geniuses who have been brought up by stay-at-home parents.

    What I am seeing, however, is that sons of working mothers are leaps and bounds ahead of peers brought up by stay-at-home mums in terms of social intelligence. This is especially prevalent in late primary years (5-7 in my state), where I'm seeing a steady increase of boys who are 10+ years old and are unable to pack a school bag quickly, tie their own shoelaces, or even go on a school camp without wigging out. I have students so attached to their stay-at-home parents they've never even been on a sleepover, and the thought of it brings them to tears. Not to mention parents who are intellectually crippling their children by doing all their homework and assignments for them. I never get this with kids who have two parents working.

    We have a generation of mums who are eagerly trying to distance themselves from the career goals of their own mothers - a group of people who believe they are so entitled to approval and affirmation of every single life decision they make that they're effectively crippling their own kid's confidence and ability to take calculated risks. It didn't used to be like this back when domestic labour was time-consuming and physically demanding. It's certainly not like this for families with serious financial or social disadvantage - even stay-at-home mums caring for severely disabled or sick relatives don't invest this time and energy into it.

    Say what you will about the latchkey generation, but they got s*** done.

    Date and time
    October 03, 2013, 8:10AM
    • "The best performers had mothers who were part-time employees." <= This

      It comes back to choice and a lot of mothers will want to work part-time as it best suits them and their children. Yet many people at least tacitly support campaigns to get more mothers to work full-time and to work in more demanding jobs.

      Date and time
      October 03, 2013, 8:19AM
      • ....because the sample was large the researchers were able to control some of the natural variables that affect children's educational outcomes.....hmmmm, It is actually not possible to control these "natural variables", so the study is flawed. The only real way to assess the affect of mum's working status on the educational outcomes at age 15( year 9 ) is by putting newborns with very similar genetic make up into two groups...( btw, almost impossible to do this! ) .one being the control group, ( i.e with stay-home mothers), the other group having mums that go to work for similar amounts of time. It is now established that a gene called FNBP1L has a huge infuence on kids' and adults' IQ.
        No mention of this gene in the study referred to here. Also, what about other infuences, such as birth order, diet, the list goes on. It sounds like another study that could give fuel to the working mothers vs stay-home mothers war. There was no mention of the influence of grandparents, childcare workers, and, hello, what about the influence of the fathers??? No mention of the extremely valuable role fathers can play in educational outcomes, nor the amount of hours daddy works. I would banish this study to the scrap heap, it actually says very little, but, good to see that it is after 3 pm, and I am only the third person to comment, so at least it has not ignited an online mummy war today, and that is a good thing:)

        Date and time
        October 03, 2013, 3:22PM
        • Well if you read the whole thing its mostly based on Denmark - where they have awesome daycare options and from the looks of many things apart from being bloody freezing an awesome place to live.
          It also refers to women in satisfying jobs - so I won't be rushing out to get a job at McDs just yet for fear my kids will surely shrivel up and die if I don't start working ASAP. And it talks about part time working Mothers - how many jobs are there in Australia for working Mothers that are part time AND satisfying??
          Actually I would like to be working part-time but getting a job ain't that easy, especially when you've been parenting for the last 7years! Everyone wants 20year olds on junior wages available 24/7 and they know that won't be Mothers.

          BTW When are we going to hear the results on studies on how much working Fathers are fucking up their kids cos it seems us women can never win. If we work we're selfish if we don't we're lazy. Maybe the men can do a better job at "having it all, or not having it all"?

          Date and time
          October 03, 2013, 3:50PM
          • I think the analysis of this article has missed a huge point - children of working mothers have hard working role models who spur them on to achieve, and teach them that they can do what they want but they have to WORK for it. As a medical student I can tell you my career parents were hugely influential in developing my work ethos - I was never pushed towards any career, but always told that hard work pays off, and they were living proof. My relationships with them never suffered from the time we spent apart, and indeed having been to creche, kinder, after school care and holiday school care my social skills were far above those of my peers when I hit secondary school.

            The point of this article is not to say that women should work because that is better for their children, it is to say that women shouldn't feel guilty for working if they want/need to, because it doesn't affect their children. Beyond that it is each family's decision to decide what's best for them.

            Date and time
            October 03, 2013, 4:13PM
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