Public and family initiatives in children’s development

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Ylenia-BrilliYlenia Brilli is a Postdoctoral Max Weber Fellow in Economics at the European University Institute. Her research interests lie in labour and family economics: she mainly works on the effects of family decisions and educational policies on children’s development and behaviours.   

The large increase in the proportion of working mothers, one of the main labour market trends in most OECD countries, has raised many concerns about its potentially negative effect on children’s wellbeing. However, in the current economic situation, it is very difficult to keep adequate standards of living conditions if only one parent works. The labour market participation of mothers has become a necessity rather than a choice and a growing proportion of parents rely on formal or informal child care to help with child-rearing.

The implications of these dynamics in the parenthood styles of new parents should be better understood, in particular in relation to the subsequent development of the child. If the mother works, this reduces the amount of time she can spend with the child, and this may cause insecure mother-child attachment and difficulties in the child’s subsequent development. However, recent analyses have found no differences in the time mothers spend with their children whether they are employed or non-employed: this may suggest that employed mothers may try to allocate their time out of work, in such a way to give priority to the time they spend with their children. Second, the quality of the alternative child care is important not only for the mother’s decisions to work but also for its effects on the development of the child.

In my research, I take all these dimensions into account in order to understand the effects of maternal employment and non-parental child care use on the cognitive development of the child. Interestingly, mothers with a college education, even if working more, are found to spend a similar amount of time with their child than do the low educated. Moreover, the time devoted to child care by college educated mothers has a larger positive effect on the child’s ability than that of the low educated. This result is consistent with a framework where college-educated mothers or mothers from higher socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to engage in activities, such as reading, talking and playing with the child, which can help the child developing his language skills, in particular during the child’s first years of life. For this reason, there have been policies aimed at filling the gap between children belonging to different socio-economic backgrounds, by coaching new parents to spend more time talking to their children.

Mothers also decide how much time to dedicate to the child instead of working, by taking into account the quality of the alternative form of care. If non-parental child care is of low quality, mothers may be less willing to use it and might prefer not to work in order to take care of their children. A low quality child care can have in fact negative implications for the cognitive and non-cognitive development of the child.

It is thus of crucial importance to invest in early childhood education, both within the family and in the type of child care provided. Formal child care has been one of the most relevant areas of family policy reform in the EU, particularly in light of the objectives set by the Barcelona European Council 2002. While the first policy response concerning child care mainly referred to its availability and affordability, policymakers have recently become aware of the importance of providing high quality child care. In the words of President Barack Obama, at the 2015 State of the Union Address: “In today’s economy when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable high quality child care more than ever.”