Attacking working moms

Our view: Frederick County commissioners were wrong to cut Head Start and wrong to assume that stay-at-home moms make the best parents

February 22, 2011

The recent decision by Frederick County's Board of County Commissioners to eliminate funding to its local Head Start program was surpassed in callousness only by the statements two male commissioners subsequently chose to make on child-rearing.

After voting to cut the county's $2.3 million contribution to the Head Start program, which readies preschool children from low-income families for kindergarten, commissioners C. Paul Smith and Kirby Delauter remarked that the ideal households were those in which the women stayed at home with small children, as their wives did. They said this made not only for better child-rearing but also for better marriages. The commissioners seem to believe that if everyone followed their example, there would be no need for Head Start.

As for the question of Head Start, the commissioners seem to be mistaking the program's purpose. It is not meant just to provide babysitting so that parents can go to work. It is meant to prepare poor children — those whose families are below the poverty level and thus unlikely to be able to afford preschool otherwise — for kindergarten. Many stay-at-home parents still see the value in sending their children to preschool, where they are exposed to structured activities and peer interactions that set the stage for K-12 education, and Head Start seeks to expand that opportunity to children who otherwise tend to face significant disadvantages.

As for the sanctimonious remarks about the inherent superiority of stay-at-home moms, they are notably short of facts. Suzanne Bianchi, a UCLA sociologist who has studied mothers' behavior over the years and is the author of "Changing Rhythms of American Family Life," says she knows of no basis to claim that the best parents are the ones who stay at home.

In fact, a study she conducted while at the University of Maryland found that working moms in 1998 spent more time with children than stay-at-home mothers did in 1965. The study compared the time diaries of 300 working mothers with diaries kept by the 1960s mothers. The findings showed that the working moms today spent an average of 5.8 waking hours a day with their children compared to 5.6 hours for the at-home mothers back then.

To make time for their offspring, the working moms of the 1990s cut back on their sleep and did less housework than the at-home moms undertook in the 1960s. Back in the 1960s, women did not have the benefit of as many labor-saving devices, so cleaning and housework duties consumed more of their day, Professor Bianchi explained. Another factor in the findings was that families were larger in the 1960s, meaning a mother's time with her offspring was divided among more children. Finally, Ms. Bianchi noted, there is the unanswered question of whether the time the children spent with their mothers actually led to substantially better outcomes, or whether the mothers simply felt it was required.

Some 70 percent of American mothers work outside the home — including 60 percent whose children are under 3 years old — many because of economic necessity. One wonders how thrilled the taxpayers of Frederick County would be to spend more on welfare benefits so poor mothers could stay home with their children rather than work. Head Start serves the dual goals of enabling more parents to be productive members of the work force and to give children a better shot at educational achievement. As a basis for public policy, that makes a lot more sense than trying to legislate a return to a golden age that wasn't necessarily so golden.

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