The embers of the Stay-at-Home vs. Work-out-of-the-Home Mommy Wars must have grown cold there for a moment; good thing this study came along to fan the flames. According to a recent BBC News story, young kids whose mothers work are less likely to lead healthy lives than those with stay-at-home moms.
The study by the UCL Institute of Child Heath (ICH) focused on the families of 12,500 5-year-olds. (The same children took part in an earlier study which found that those with working mothers were more likely to be obese or overweight by the age of 3.) Among the findings:
* Five-year-olds whose mothers worked part-time or full-time were more likely to primarily consume sweetened drinks between meals.
* Five-year-olds with working mothers used their computers or watched television for at least two hours a day.
* Kids with working moms were more likely to be driven to school compared to the children of "stay at home" mothers who tended to walk or ride their bikes.
Professor Catherine Law, who led the study, theorized that working moms may not have enough time to provide healthy foods or opportunities for physical activity, but insisted that the results of the study "do not imply that mothers should not work." (Indeed... the British Institute for Economic and Social Research took care of that with their 2003 study, which concluded that "going back to work after the birth of a child can have a negative impact on a child's development - unless you have lots of money.") Instead, Law says, her study shows that there need to be more policies and programs to help support parents.
Personally, I think the fact that kids who are unhealthy at age 3 are still unhealthy two years later seems to have more to do with education than employment. Working outside of the home doesn't automatically make you buy cookies and soda when you're stocking the pantry, but if heavily processed convenience foods are less expensive and more widely available than more-nutritious options it's easy to see how obesity and ill health could be rampant. While spending tons of time in front of the tube isn't good for anyone, what your kids are watching has much more of an impact than the fact that the TV is on; a Harvard Medical School study earlier this year found that while TV time isn't beneficial for kids, it's not necessarily harmful either. (Yes, computer time is still time spent in front of a screen, but there are plenty of great educational sites for kids out there.)
The ICH study did not look at fathers and their employment levels or the impact they have on their children's health, because their numbers have remained stable while the number of moms in the workforce has "increased dramatically." But in this economy, working outside of the home is less of a choice and more of a necessity for many people. And more families strive to share the parenting duties more evenly instead of letting all of the responsibilities rest on the mom. Ignoring those facts skews the study's results pretty dramatically.
Parents, what do you think? Are healthy lifestyle habits undermined when both parents work outside of the home?
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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