AP

Monday March 1 02:24 EST

Working Mom Absences Said Unharmful

WASHINGTON (AP) — A study evaluating the development and health of more than 6,000 youngsters suggests that children of women who work outside the home suffer no permanent harm because of their mother's absence.

``I found there was no difference between children whose mothers were employed versus children whose mothers were not employed during the first three years,'' said Elizabeth Harvey, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. ``Being employed is not going to harm the children.''

Harvey's study, published in the March issue of the journal Developmental Psychology, came to a different conclusion than some earlier studies of the same group of children. The new work examined the children at a later age, 12 years old.

This suggests, said David Eggebeen of Pennsylvania State University, who co-authored an earlier study, that problems detected in children of working mothers at age 3 and 4 may have gone away by the time the children were 12.

``Harvey's study suggests that the number of hours spent away from home is not as important as the quality of parenting,'' said Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, an associate professor of human development at the University of Chicago. She called the Harvey study ``an important contribution'' but not the final answer on issues relating to children and working mothers.

In the study, Harvey used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, an in-depth interview study of 12,000 young people between the ages of 14 and 22 that started in 1979. Harvey concentrated on children born to the women in the study after 1980. The children were assessed every other year from 1986 to 1994.

There were more than 6,000 children of all races in Harvey's study, most evaluated more than once. The youngest child assessed was 3, the oldest 12.

Harvey used standard psychological tests to evaluate children's language development, academic achievement, self-esteem and behavior problems. Some of the results were based on reports of the parents.

In comparison with children of mothers who did not work, Harvey said she found no statistically significant difference in any of the measures.

However, when comparing children within the group of mothers who had outside employment, Harvey found very slight differences that were dependent on how many hours the mother worked and how soon she started work after the child was born. Some women in the study returned to work as quickly as four weeks after giving birth, while others waited three years.

``Returning to work later and having more breaks in employment was associated with more compliant children,'' said Harvey. ``The children (of later-working mothers) were better behaved'' between the ages of three and four.

But, she noted, ``the difference was very tiny and disappeared by the age of 5,'' she said.

Another slight difference, apparent only in the scientific tests, was linked to the number of hours per week worked by the mothers, the researcher said.

``The more hours the mother worked per week during the first three years, the lower the children's language development and academic achievement,'' Harvey said. ``But, again, these effects were very tiny — so small you would have a hard time detecting them.''

By the age of 10, the difference in academic achievement went away. She said the language development difference ``never went away in the data, but got continuously smaller by the age of 12.''

Fundamentally, said Harvey, the study suggests issues exist in raising children that are more important than outside employment of the mother. These include the quality of the parent-child relationship and the quality of the child's day-care arrangement, she said.

``The message should be that being at home during the early years, or being employed during those years, are both good choices,'' Harvey said. ``Both can result in healthy, well-developed children.''

Developmental Psychology is a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Psychological Association.

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