The decisions of parenting are endless. Choosing a pediatrician, buying an up-to-code car seat, arranging for your maternity leave — these are all discussed and decided months before your baby is even born.
But you might want to give that last item – maternity leave – another thought.
If you have the option to take time off from work to raise your child, doing so later may be better than sooner. Intriguing research done in Norway shows that time spent with your child when he or she is older may have dramatic benefits, including higher grades and better performance overall in school.
The Norwegian study, published in Statistics Norway and led by Eric Bettinger of Stanford University, looked at Norway’s 17-year-old “Cash for Care” initiative, through which parents received subsidies for staying at home with their babies and toddlers. The research team studied not the young children but the “unintended beneficiaries” of the initiative — older children in the household who also had a parent at home with them full time.
The older siblings with a parent at home increased their grade-point averages in 10th grade by .02 points on average (Norway has a grading scale of 1 to 6 points), which was statistically significant.
The researchers found that gains were strongest among children age 6 or 7 when a parent stayed home after their sibling’s birth.
“The results suggest that even older students in middle or elementary school could use guidance from their parents,” Bettinger told the Stanford School of Business Insights publication.
“For years, we have known that parental presence is extraordinarily important in the very early childhood years. What we’re finding is that parents continue to be important much further along in a child’s life than we had previously thought,” he said.
The intangible, emotional benefits of time spent at home raising a child are very real for both parent and child, as many parents who have been able to do so know. The opportunity to guide the formation of a child’s morals and character day in and day out are but a few of the many benefits.
“I’m a stay-at-home mom who left a 10-year career in environmental consulting,” mother and wife Melissa Davis, who lives outside Boston, Massachusetts, told LifeZette. “We decided to make sacrifices so I could stay home with our children. I’m the person that says goodbye to them in the morning, and the person who greets them after school. My kids will get experience and adventure with their mom, instead of being confined within the walls of their own bedrooms or one-on-one with the latest gadgets.”
And there’s the academic help. As U.S. schools increasingly concentrate on standardized test scores and district performance numbers, study and organizational skills critical to academic success fall by the wayside. Many parents who are at home step in to fill the void.
“I help my boys plan homework and study time,” said Meghan Wilmot of Topsfield, Massachusetts. “I help them learn to evaluate and negotiate so many different things – social life, school life – not to mention just getting them to their activities well-fed and ready to play. And just with social media alone, making sure they are safe online – it takes time to do that. But those things are important.”
Forget the Helicopter Syndrome
Wilmot also said that involved parenting by a stay-a-home mom or dad is different from “helicopter” parenting.
“There is a big difference between being over-involved from a distance in a way that creates chaos, and being involved in a reflective, thoughtful way that is respectful of the job.” She laughed. “And raising these boys is a job!”
Jon Mattleman, a mental health counselor and director of youth services in Needham, Massachusetts, agreed.
“Having more sets of eyes on older kids is always better,” he told LifeZette. “Here’s the difference between helicopter parenting and involved parenting. Are the eyes on the kid aggressive eyes, or watchful eyes?”
Mattleman offered simple, timeless parenting advice.
“Less talking and more listening is key,” he said.”In order to listen, you have to be there.”
Wilmot feels her time with her boys, ages 13, 12 and 9, doesn’t have to be articulated to be beneficial.
“They know I’m here and that is powerful, I think. And you never know when that dam is going to break and your teen is going to spill information. I want to be the one there to absorb that, not someone else.”
The New Parenting Twist
Today, the parenting gridiron is not as black and white as depicted in the 2007 book “The Mommy Wars” by Leslie Morgan Steiner. Times have changed, and workplace opportunities like telecommuting offer new ways to parent.
Telecommuters now make up 2.6 percent of the American workforce, or 3.2 million workers, according to statistics from an American Community Survey. Working parents have one (virtual) foot in the office, and one planted firmly at home. Many stay-at-home dads as well as work-at-home moms conduct 100 percent of their business from home.
Study author Bettinger noted that in Norway, the benefits of having one parent at home could be limited to more affluent families, since in many lower-income homes both parents tended to work and take subsidies, leaving the children in more informal childcare arrangements./
Norway also has excellent, publicly subsidized daycare, so children who attend daycare are well-tended and exposed to positive educational stimuli. In the U.S., one parent at home full time may make all the difference.
Though families work in different ways, and kids come in all types, one thing seems clear: When possible, there is no substitute for a caring, available parent dedicated to a child’s health and well-being.
“Life is short and material things fade away,” said Davis of her parenting philosophy. “What truly matters is our connection with our loved ones, how we invest our precious time on Earth, and how we teach and show our children to be caring, productive, and emotionally stable souls.”
Wilmot agreed. “It works for us, having me home. We’re happy.”
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