In its cover story a few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine followed up with nearly two dozen mothers who had decided, a decade ago, to walk away from successful professional careers to stay home with their kids. Although none of these moms outright regret their choices, many wish they had at least continued to work part-time. Career options dry up, it seems, the longer you forgo them.
For me—the parenting columnist—the elephant in the room when I read the article was: So what was best for their kids? Parents often decide to stay home because they think doing so is better for their children. (Sure, there are plenty of other reasons, too, such as the desire to be around one’s offspring and, oh yeah, the crippling costs of child care.) But is this notion—that kids do better when a parent, typically a mother, stays home with them—actually true?
As Huston’s comment also suggests, the effects, on average, are small. What’s far, far, far more important than child care in shaping your kid’s future is what her home life is like. Jay Belsky, a child development expert at the University of California, Davis, who was also involved in the NICHD study, put it to me this way: “If you were a fetus and the good Lord came to you and said, ‘I can give you great quality day care and a lousy family, or a great family but lots of lousy day care,’ you choose the latter, not the former.” Yet in the same breath, Belsky added that even though the negative effects of day care are modest, “one needs to be careful about dismissing them.”
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