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Do working mums raise better boys?


Recently, there's been much talk about the effects of working parents, mothers in particular, on their children.

Growing Great Boys by Ian Grant

The consensus from two new major studies — a Harvard University intergenerational study and an education gender gap study co-authored by the University of NSW — was that girls generally thrived, yet the studies showed quite different outcomes regarding the education of boys.

While the Harvard study, which took in data from 50,000 adults in 25 countries, including Australia, found that a working mother didn't much influence the careers of her sons, this was counteracted by the 'Mothers' Employment and Children's Educational Gender Gap' study, which concluded that the education of boys was 'more adversely affected' by a mother's employment.

Just what are we mothers of sons (including yours truly) to make of such divergent findings? While the gender gap study allows us to revert easily enough to the default position of mother guilt, there was one other significant finding by the Harvard study that should have had us high-fiving each other.

The study found that boys of working mothers improved in two vital areas. One, they did more housework and, two, they were more nurturing.

Yes, you read right. Sons of working mothers from developed countries as diverse as Mexico, Russia, Israel, the US and Australia spent a whole extra hour a week caring for their family members and 17 minutes more per week on housework.

As Kathleen McGinn, a professor at Harvard Business School and a co-author of the study, told The New York Times: 'This [finding] is as close to a silver bullet as you can find in terms of helping reduce gender inequalities, both in the workplace and at home.'

Not only did the Harvard research further add to a well-regarded 2004 US research paper that argued 'that the growing presence of a new type of man — one brought up in a family in which the mother worked — has been a significant factor in the increase in female labour force participation over time'; it also found a direct link between an increased women's labour force and more stable partnerships.

As someone whose single-handed efforts of trying to get two young males, aged five and eight, dressed, fed and out the door in the mornings remains something of a delicate dance between capitulation and utter chaos, this came not as a revelation, but a reaffirmation.

Long before I became a mother I vowed to teach my sons (or daughters) the value of chipping in around the house, being able to cook for themselves, and stepping in when someone they loved needed them.

As my boys grew, parenting experts such as Steve Biddulph and Ian Grant assured me through parenting books such as Raising Boys andGrowing Great Boys that I was on the right track.

Rather than creating obedient droids, these experts assured me, I was helping foster personalities who could see beyond their own immediate needs and take steps towards becoming more loving human beings. (Every little step matters. Last week, at school assembly, my husband and I watched our youngest pick up his first Student of the Week certificate for being 'caring'.)

This, I tell my sons regularly, is every bit as aspirational as an exceptional VCE score or climbing up a corporate ladder.

But don't just take my word for it. Here's what a leading Australian economic journalist has to say on the matter.

'One of the main things I've concluded after years in this job', Fairfax's Ross Gittins wrote earlier this month, 'is that although the economic dimension of our lives — the earning and spending of income — is vitally important, it's far from being the only important aspect. And we disregard those other dimensions — the relational, the social, the cultural and the spiritual — at our peril.'

Did you catch that? Not only are we working mothers providing a leg up for our daughters, helping shape a new, improved, domestic male, and paving the way for stronger, adaptable, more spiritually-attuned human beings, but perhaps we're also part of a new thinking that's redefining and reassessing what success will look like in the future.

Having a mother who not only goes to work, but works from home, I hope my sons grow into men who will have insightful and supportive relationships with the women in their lives.

With the proverbial hitting the fan on more mornings than not, I admit that encouraging them to be hands on hasn't always been fruitful or productive. I don't expect my boys to embrace or even get it now, but I do hope that as adults they come to see the value of our family dynamic. Yes, those little efforts around the house really are part of the bigger picture.

Jen VukJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor.

Topic tags: Jen Vuk, Ian Grant, Steve Biddulph, Growing Better Boys, working mothers



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Existing comments

Simple answer is no. Good parenting has nothing to do with whether or not a parent works or doesn't work.

john frawley | 12 June 2015  

As a son my parents made me, my brothers and my sister do varying chores without labels of men's or women's work. My wife and I do the same with our daughter and son. Thank you for a voice of calm in the domestic storm, Jen. Male privilege doesn't 'wash' if we want a fairer and more equitable society, and addressing inequity starts with toddlers. And federal ministers for women. There are comparisons to be drawn there.

Barry G | 12 June 2015  

Good on you Jen, your approach has been validated by research! It'a about time mother- guilt got knocked on the head forever, and it is only the old hat conservatives who still use it to beat up women for working. Oh, i forgot, they are the government...

Karen | 14 June 2015  

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