Eric Bettinger: Why Stay-at-Home Parents are Good for Older Children

October 20, 2014

It may be the most hotly disputed and emotionally loaded question that American parents face: Are children better off if a parent stays at home?

The evidence is already quite strong that staying at home during a child’s first year of life can have long-term benefits. That’s why most industrial nations (though not the United States) guarantee at least some paid parental leave for working mothers and fathers.

What’s been less clear is whether stay-at-home parenting also benefits older children who may already be in elementary or even middle school. On the one hand, the additional income from a second salary is crucial for many families. On the other hand, it is hard to match the attention and guidance that an involved parent can provide.

It’s an issue for fathers and mothers alike, but women account for the overwhelming majority of parents who give up outside jobs to care for their children. The ranks of those women have shrunk dramatically. In the United States, about 70% of mothers with young children now have jobs outside the home — up from 10% in 1940.

But a new study, drawing on extensive data from Norway, found potentially dramatic benefits for older children when their parents had more opportunity to stay at home. Indeed, the benefits may be even greater for children in the United States than they were for children in Norway.

The study comes from Eric Bettinger, associate professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education with a courtesy appointment at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and two Norwegian scholars. The researchers examined the impact of Norway’s “Cash for Care” program, which offers a generous cash payment to stay-at-home parents with children below the age of 3.