• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Wednesday 13th May, 2009

Do Black kids with working moms do better than White kids?

Feminists and politicians interested in moving moms into the workforce to lighten the welfare load have something in common. They bristle at any suggestion that children of working mothers don’t do as well. This being the case, findings from a recent US study have plenty to annoy both groups – and anyone else likely to take umbrage at the mention of racial or ethnic differences.Lawrence Berger of the University of Wisconsin, whose team also included Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University in New York, set out simply to explain an anomaly.They were interested in findings from earlier studies which suggested that if White mothers work before their children are a year old, the children don’t use language so well. Such differences between children of working and stay-at-home moms tend not to be found among Black and Hispanic families. The research team wondered whether similarly puzzling findings would emerge from a study of a larger mixed group (the earlier studies tended to look at smaller numbers of minority families). They also wondered if they could explain differences between White and non-White families by investigating the types of childcare they tended to choose, their experiences of depression and stress, or their approaches to parenting.After examining data collected from 1,483 families (most of whom had low incomes and lived in cities), the researchers don’t offer much consolation to feminists, politicians, or really anyone, except maybe Black working mothers. Like earlier studies, this one showed that White kids with working moms (specifically moms who worked during their children’s first year) had lower vocabulary scores than their White counterparts with stay-at-home moms. And, as with previous research, this finding didn’t hold true for Black or Hispanic families. Indeed, the evidence suggests that Black children might benefit from their mothers’ employment. They tended to behave better than their counterparts with stay-at-home moms. The only other racial or ethnic difference was that Hispanic children with working mothers were, on average, worse behaved than Hispanic children whose moms stayed at home.Perhaps most troubling is that the researchers were not able to shed any light on why the impact of having a working mother might be different for children of different races or ethnicities. Their suspicions that differences among racial or ethnic groups in childcare, family depression and stress, or parenting approaches might account for differences in language development or behavior were not borne out. So the researchers are left scratching their heads and, as ever, calling for more research. • Summary of “First-year maternal employment and child outcomes: Differences across racial and ethnic groups” by Lawrence Berger, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Christina Paxson, and Jane Waldfogel in Children and Youth Services Review, Volume 30, Issue 4, April 2008, pp. 365-387.

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