Dec. 13, 2006 -- Working women might be gaining acceptance from both their colleagues and their children, but the same kids who say it's OK for Mommy to work full-time away from home might think it's not OK for Daddy to take on a stay-at-home role, says new research.
University of Maryland researchers Melanie Killen and Stefanie Sinno asked 121 children -- boys and girls, ages 7 and 10 -- if they thought it was all right for dads to stay home and take care of kids, while moms work full-time outside of the home. While few children had negative stereotypes about moms working, many more children had negative stereotypes about dads taking care of them.
Even though children thought it would be good for a mother to stay at home, the majority of kids also thought it was good for moms to work. "She likes working and she's probably good at it," said one child.
There were no gender differences among the children's responses -- boys and girls evaluated the situations in a similar way.
In contrast to recent debates about the mommy wars (which pits working moms against stay-at-home moms), researchers found that kids think moms can do both -- work outside the home and be good parents. While women have established a place at the office, however, men haven't established themselves in the house quite as successfully.
For many children, it seems like dads don't know much about how to take care of kids, and this appears to influence children's decisions about what dads should do.
Most kids said that dads should go back to work and not stay at home because "they would probably sit on the couch with potato chips and not much around the house would get done." But these ideas do change with age, so by 10 years old, children are more likely to think that fathers are capable of staying at home. One 10-year-old said, "If the dad wants to be there, he should, because the kids will be happier if the dad is at home."
While the mommy wars focus attention on the differences between moms at home and moms who work, children of both age groups are open to mothers' choices, according to the research.
That choice between being a "good mom" and a "good worker" might not be the only choice to make, and might not be a choice at all. Mothers put unnecessary pressure on themselves, research suggests, because in a kid's mind, the dichotomy between a stay-at-home mom and a working mom doesn't exist.
But that dichotomy does exist for men, it seems. Can that image be changed?
The starting point for change may be with how kids and society respond to a father's involvement in the home. Studies examining the role of fathers have shown that an involved father is good for the child -- kids benefit when fathers are involved in the day-to-day activities of school, friends, playmates and homework.
Father involvement in the family is important, say child development experts, who claim that children with fathers who are involved in their day-to-day life events are better off.
So, stereotypes limit dads' options just like past stereotypes about working women limited moms' options.
And those father-directed stereotypes also hurt mothers.
When fathers become more involved in taking care of kids -- when they work less and spend more time at home -- mothers have more flexibility to work and take care of kids.
Researchers in this latest study asked 10-year-olds how both mothers and fathers could be involved at home. One child said, "How about they take turns working and being with the kids? Then it's fair for everyone. Everyone gets to do some things that they like and the kids get to see both their mom and dad."
The opinions of mothers taking on a breadwinning role have changed -- the new challenge is to change ideas about fathers' ability to take care of children. A parental juggling act is not easy, but it gives children role models to live by.
Stefanie Sinno is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland under Melanie Killen, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland and director of the National Institutes of Health training program in social development.