More research about who make the best carers – mothers or others

I went to Macquarie University today to listen to a presentation by Professor Michael Keane, a distinguished finance and economics researcher at the University of Technology. As you may have guessed by now, my interests are somewhat removed from the cold world of ‘human resources’, productivity, and statistics, and the only reason I went to listen to this presentation was the unusual research topic, especially coming from an economist.

Professor Keane’s research was about child care choices and their impact on children’s cognitive achievement. He had worked out a very complicated looking set of variables to examine how children of single mothers fared at school when they had been at home with mum during the preschool years compared with children who had attended care outside the home. His research also considered the IQs of mothers, and the final figures included over 1,400 American children, a very solid sample. When he had explained all the statistics it was time to reveal the findings, and the poor Professor became very apologetic.

He said he could not believe his own findings when he saw the figures, and had tried to twig them a little, but the data would not budge from its position. He said that he had expected that children in care would have better cognitive (eg. thinking-type ability) outcomes at school as a result of having attended care. But no. Instead, there was actually a significant negative finding for children who had not stayed at home with their mothers, especially if they had been in informal care, e.g. with their grandparents (formal care – preschools/long day care -showed no significant findings either way).

This finding contrasts the research I reviewed in my last blog, where children’s social-emotional outcomes were better if they had been cared for by their grandparents in comparison to formal care. Apparently their good influence may not extend to children’s cognitive development. Professor Keane said he had been reproached by women (clever women who came to his lectures) whose children were in care while they listened to him, who could not believe his findings and asked whether he was sure he had not made a mistake.

As he spoke, I could empathise with his concern over the results, especially as he spoke at Macquarie’s Institute of Early Childhood, where many new early childhood teachers are trained each year. One listener asked whether the result would have something to do with the mothers being single. Professor Keane answered that another researcher, Raquel Bernal, had near-identical findings with married women*.

This is not popular research findings, not the type of finding that any early childhood training institution would be looking for, nor findings the Productivity Commission would wish to air. I asked whether the paper had been published. Professor Keane answered no, the journal reviewers were still unhappy about something or other. Who knows, perhaps they are unhappy about the political incorrectness of his findings, adding to the adverse research I wrote about in my last blog. It appears that, although childcare may be good for mothers, it may not be quite so good for the children…

The good Professor summarised his findings with a statement to the effect that clever children (with high IQ mothers who were more likely to return to work because they were able to earn well) would be the most adversely affected by being cared for by others. Something to consider when looking at child care options for your potentially gifted child!

*Bernal, R. (2008). The effect of maternal employment and child care on children’s cognitive development. International Economic Review, 49, (4), 1173-1209.