Higher marks with mom at home

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New research indicates that the older children of mothers who opted to stay home with their youngest children, instead of putting them in Norway’s subsidized day care centers, did better in school than their peers who attended after-school programs or came home to an empty house because both parents were working full-time. The research questions whether Norway’s vast array of social policies and programs that encourage workplace equality and full participation in the labour force have overlooked what’s best for the children.

Mari Rege, a Norwegian economics professor who worked with colleagues at state statistics bureau SSB and Stanford University in the US, unveiled the results of her research project in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Friday. Her study, called “Home with Mom: The Effects of Stay-at-Home Parents on Children’s Long-run Educational Outcomes,” was financed by the Norwegian Research Council (Norges  forskningsråd) and has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Labor Economics.

‘Provocative’
Rege is well-aware her research will provoke many in Norway, where it’s expected that everyone works outside the home and programs – from heavily subsidized day care to lengthy maternity and paternity leave – are in place to make that easier for working parents. It’s likely to cheer, however, the relatively small percentage of women in Norway who defy social and political pressure and stay home or work only part-time when their children are young, yet often feel they lack respect for their decisions.

“There are many good reasons to celebrate women’s advances in the workplace,” Rege wrote in her own commentary on the study she conducted with Torbjørn Hægeland of SSB and Eric Bettinger of Stanford. “It can therefore seem provocative when we question how that has affected children.” She nonetheless believed it was time to raise the question, and put the spotlight on the needs of the children, not their working parents.

The study heavily involved use of the unique and still-controversial Norwegian welfare program called kontantstøtte (literally, “cash support”) that pays a parent (usually the mother) to continue to stay at home with their child after the first year of paid maternity leave runs out, instead of placing the child in a subsidized day care center. Conservative politicians have traditionally supported the kontantstøtte program, which was pushed through by the Christian Democrats party in 1998, while the socialist parties have bashed it for allegedly encouraging women to stay at home instead of taking part in the workforce.

Basis for evaluation
Rege and her colleagues used SSB data that allowed them to compare differences in school grades between all 10th-grade students who had younger siblings in “kontantstøtte age” (when they themselves were aged seven to 11) and all school children of the same age without such young siblings. Groups were examined both before and after the introduction of the “kontantstøtte” that offered a financial incentive for (mostly) mothers to stay at home.

Rege stressed that the research wasn’t aimed at evaluating the kontantstøtte program itself, but it gave Rege and her colleagues a basis for evaluating how children performed at school after their mothers had an incentive to stay at home. Those whose mothers were home because of younger siblings ended up with “considerably” higher marks on their report cards than those in families where both parents were working. “School children whose mothers were at home because they were getting kontantstøtte did much better at school,” Rege wrote.

Most importantly, Rege told DN, was that the research results indicate that the school-aged children of parents who both work full time aren’t being offered programs or care that “are good enough to replace Mom.” The study showed that children who take part in the subsidized after-school program in Norway known as SFO, or who spend time home alone until their parents return from work, didn’t perform as well as they could have if their mother was at home.

The quest for Mom’s replacement
“I hope this study can put the children in focus,” Rege told DN. “The question is: Have we been conscious of giving our children a good alternative (in the absence of a parent at home)? What are the alternatives for children when both mom and dad work full time? What can be good enough to replace mom at home?”

Having dad at home is an unlikely option, Rege said, meaning that Norwegian officials should evaluate introduction of much longer school days including lessons, physical activity, healthy food, play and rest. “If society needs mothers in the workforce, the introduction of full-day schools must be examined,” Rege said.

Critics of kontantstøtte refrained from comment until they’d had time to read the full study, but there was some immediate reaction: “It can’t be ruled out that it’s better for children to have a parent at home, which in practice is almost always Mom, for a while,” Brita Bungum, a researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, told DN. Bungum wrote her doctoral thesis on children and parents’ worklife and has been a vocal critic of the kontantstøtte program that gives an incentive to stay home.

“But then we assume that the parent who is at home has the resources to offer good guidance both into school work and into society,” Bungum said. “Not all parents receiving kontantstøtte have that.” She still thinks it’s most important to motivate women to work outside the home, both for the sake of the women, their children and society.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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