Do working mothers raise couch potato kids?
It was reported in the news last week that ‘children are healthiest when mother works part time’ A study done by NSW’s University of New England found that children of mothers who worked part time ate less junk food, watched less television, and were less likely to be overweight compared to those whose mothers worked full time or were stay at home mums.
At first glance, this could make sense if we think about mothers who work full time as they probably have less time to cook and do activities with their children. Part time mothers, it could be assumed, are more likely to ensure that the time they do spend with their children is of higher quality.
In that case, why would stay at home mothers have unhealthier children? Perhaps when you are at home full time with your children, you are overwhelmed with them and it is easy to stick them in front of the television to give yourself a break. But why would they eat more junk food and be more obese?
The news reports have assumed that there is a causative relationship, ie, that staying at home full time leads to unhealthy children. However, it is probably more likely that there is a factor which is common to both being a full time stay at home mum, and unhealthy children, that hasn’t been examined (a confounding factor).
For example, we know that people of lower socioeconomic status and with lower incomes are more likely to be overweight, obese and unhealthy. It is not clear from the reports on this study whether the mothers were working before having children, or what income or educational achievements they had. Perhaps mothers are at home full time because it makes no financial sense for them to work once they factor in childcare because their income is low. Or, if they have no specific ‘career’ and worked in unskilled jobs, giving up work may not be as difficult a decision for them. So, it may appear as if being a stay at home mum causes childhood obesity, but the reality may be that there is a casuative factor common to them both.
There are more details that are important too: are the parents overweight and how much television do they watch? For working mothers, who is caring for the child while they are at work? A child in day care is less likely to watch television (I assume that child care centres don’t switch on televisions) that one being looked after by a family member. And where are the fathers? Are mothers working full time because they are single parents? This would make it more likely that they have lower incomes, which again is a risk factor for obesity.
It’s easy to see the results of a study like this reported and make assumptions. Mothers have enough to deal with without headlines making them feel guilty and inviting the wider community to make judgements on their work choices.