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Is being a working parent bad for your children?

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There seems to have been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in the media in recent years asking the question ‘is being a working parent bad for your children?’ And, perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘parent’ in this debate seems very often to mean ‘mother’. Yes, we can take it as a compliment that mothers are recognised as the most crucial factor in a child’s early development (sorry dads). But it can also feel like a stick to beat ourselves with (so dads, you’re off the guilt-trip hook). It seems like we’re damned if we do (work) and damned if we don’t.

Conflicting information

Just a five-minute search for studies reported in the last decade tells us that working mothers are ‘gambling’ with their children’s health and development. Children of working mothers are apparently slow learners, are more likely to be overweight, have more mental health issues, are less likely to get qualifications, and are more likely to have children in their teens. But then another study claims that working mothers do no damage to their kids.

Still another says that working mothers have better mental health, form better family relationships and impact favourably on their children’s development. Search again tomorrow and you’ll probably find the experts have changed their minds again, but the prevailing opinion seems to be that full-time working when your child is under five harms their prospects in life, from educational attainment to early pregnancy.

Increased earnings

Perhaps it’s some comfort that even the most alarming research findings seem to be balanced (often in the same study) by positives. Researchers have concluded that the negative effects of a mother’s full-time working during a child’s early years can be offset by the positive impact of the family’s increased earnings. Provided, of course, that the income is sufficiently high – so, if you’re lucky enough to earn a good whack, then it’s worth it. (Did we need research to tell us that?)Is being a working parent bad for your children

Part time Vs Full time

And it seems there’s more good news for some of us. The ‘damage’ done to our children’s development by working part-time is apparently significantly less than full-time working. So as well as it being great for work-life balance and keeping a place on the career ladder, part-time working is a good choice too for giving your children the best of both worlds – balancing  parental time with extra cash to provide for their needs.

But, let’s face it, many of us have no choice but to work, and part-time isn’t always an option. The right part-time job, especially one that pays enough, is hard to find so full-time may have to do. It doesn’t mean we care any less – in fact it may mean we’re more mindful to make the most of the time we do have with our children.

So who do you believe, and how do you prevent your child’s emotional or educational development being harmed by your working pattern?

There’s no typical child

Well, no child is the ‘typical’ child described in the research. They each develop at different rates, their lives are all different, and the involvement of one working parent in their child’s learning and development is going to be different to the next parent’s. All we can each do is choose our childcare carefully, pay attention to what is going on in our child’s life, and do our best to show them love, interest and involvement whenever they are in our care. And take with a pinch of salt what other people are telling us about what is right or wrong.

Subjective results

Look more closely at the research and very often you’ll see that the results that make the headlines are just percentage point differences in the likelihood of a better or worse outcome. And whose ‘better or worse’ is it anyway? You don’t need ‘A’ levels to be happy, and having a baby before you’re 21 isn’t necessarily a ‘bad thing’. Ask yourself who is the research being done for, and why? The answer might not be simply to improve children’s lives, or to make the job of being a parent easier.

All the research in the world isn’t going to change our individual circumstances overnight. So, until it changes public policy and spending to help us raise our little ones, how about we make a pact? Let’s all ignore the scaremongering, stop reading the ‘under 5’s stressed out by working parents’ articles, and give ourselves a break. Deal?



About Alison McKay

About Alison McKay

Alison McKay is a charity PR professional with over 15 years' experience in full-time, part-time and jobshare roles. Since being made redundant while on maternity leave, she has divided her time between working for a local museum, freelance and volunteer writing, and being chief wrangler to a two-year-old mud-magnet and an almost-seven-year-old wannabe dog-care worker with a penchant for hair accessories. Alison's hobbies include yoga, reading cookery books and putting away just enough clean laundry to keep the pile below 3ft tall.

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