Growing up in a generation of latchkey kids,Jessica Holman readily accepted that both her parents worked full-time.
“I actually felt pretty good about them both working because I knew that if only one of them worked,we’d have less money and wouldn’t be able to afford the extra things that made my childhood special,like taking summer vacations,” she says.
Like some children,however,Holman,21,wondered what it would be like to have a parent at home.
“I sometimes was envious of my friends whose moms didn’t work and could spend so much time with them,” she says. “A stay-at-home parent could give you that special attention that most working parents don’t have the time or energy to give.”
According to “America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2000,” a report compiled by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics,68 percent of American children lived with two parents in 1999.
Between 1980 and 1998,the percentage of children living in two-parent households in which both the mother and father worked full time all year increased from 17 to 31 percent,the report says.
A consortium of 20 Federal agencies that gather data on children makes up the forum. “America's Children” is a comprehensive report looking at critical aspects of child well being,such as social environment,behavior,economic security,health and education.
It is debated whether children gain or lose when both parents work.
Denise Brandon,a family relations specialist with the Agricultural Extension Service at the University of Tennessee,contends that every situation is different,citing research done by the Families and Work Institute.
“It appears that parents who are in satisfying jobs and who avoid bringing stress into the family may actually be good for their children,” she says. “Parents who have stressful jobs or who voice worries over money and work issues may cause children to feel stress.”
In her book,“Ask the Children,The Breakthrough Study that Reveals How to Succeed at Work and Parenting,” institute president Ellen Galinsky examines the debate and tries to answer the multi-faceted question.
“Just as Ellen Galinsky found,I think the answer is ‘it depends,' Brandon says. “ I think that having two working parents is not necessarily detrimental or beneficial to children. How parents go about the job of parenting is most important.”
There can be pros and cons to a working parent environment,according to Brandon.
“Parents who have jobs that they like and that do not require lots of overtime or time away from home,may be beneficial to children in terms of providing additional enriching experiences for parents and children,” Brandon says.
Time and work are factors to consider.
“I feel particularly blessed because both of my parents worked,but they had jobs that were conducive to their spending time with my brother and me,” Brandon says. “My mother had time off when we were off from school,and my father’s hours were flexible enough that he was able to spend quite a bit of time with us as well. I feel like I had the best of both worlds.”
For Brandon,stress at work is also an element that can affect the core of a family.
“Parents who are in work that they do not like or that they feel is demeaning may take out their frustrations on their families or may seem unhappy much of the time,” Brandon says. “Children sense this and may see work as a negative thing.”
Holman,currently a senior in early-childhood education,agrees.
“There is evidence that parents who have strenuous job demands are less involved in their child's education,which in the end has a negative impact on the child,but I don’t think [working parents] are necessarily a disadvantage,” Holman says. “If a parent is really concerned about their child’s development,they will make time to get involved like my parents did for me.”
John Sandberg,sociologist and first author of “Changes in Children's Time With Parents,U.S. 1981-1997,”a University of Michigan study,agrees.
“Even though parents,and especially mothers,may be busier than ever,many seem to be managing to fit in more time with their children than earlier generations of parents did,” he says.
In “Ask the Children,” Galinsky offers tips to parents on how to talk to children about work and family life. Among them,she advises them to not only find the right time and place for talking,but to share information about their job and tell the children about their day.
“Children may feel pride in the work that their parents do,especially if they know about their parents’ work and their parents express positive feelings toward the work that they do,” Brandon says.
Additionally,Brandon points to other positives experienced by parents working outside the home that reflect on their children. Among these,a greater income,support network and knowledge base.
“Parents may feel more fulfilled and respected by others,which could boost their self-esteem,” she says. “[They] can interact with other parents at work and may be able to form a support system for dealing with problems they experience in raising their children. Parents may have enriching experiences through their work experiences such as travel opportunities or opportunities for training or meeting interesting people. These experiences can be shared with children to enrich their own learning.”
Children,too,can experience some positives of their own,Brandon says.
“Children may become more independent if parents take the time to teach them how to help with the jobs that need to be done at home and give them responsibility for those jobs,” she says.
According to Brandon,there are negatives that might surface if both parents in a two-family home work full time outside of the home.
With their involved schedule,parents might neglect house cleaning,which could be a detriment to family members with allergies and asthma,as well as preparing meals that might not be as nutritionally balanced because of a lack of time,she says.
Issues about money might also surface.
“Children may learn that having money and things are more important than spending time with families,” she says. “If parents feel guilty about their work,they may try to overcome the guilt by using their earnings to buy things their children want,and they may refrain from requiring children to do chores or take on household responsibilities.”
Childcare is also a consideration.
“There are additional costs to families when both parents work such as the cost of childcare,” Brandon says. “Finding good,quality childcare at a price that they can afford may be a real problem for working parents. Some parents may find that the extra expenses incurred when both parents work offset the extra money that is earned by having two incomes.”
Ultimately,Brandon says,the answer of whether a child would benefit from a working family home,lies with the parents experience with the work itself.
“I think a lot of it boils down to whether the parents enjoy their work and pass that enjoyment on to their children,” she says. “If both parents are happy working and take time to be with their children and to share that enjoyment with them,I think dual-earner families may be beneficial to children. However,if either parent is unhappy,unfulfilled or feels guilty for working outside the home,then they might be better off cutting back to one employed parent,if possible.”
For Holman,the future might not necessarily reflect the past.
“For my own kids,when I have them,I want to be a stay-at-home mom for them if possible,” she says. “But,I think that my parents did the best that they could for what they have and what they do,so I probably wouldn’t change anything about my childhood if I had the chance.”