Mothers' and Fathers' Work Hours, Child Gender, and Behavior in Middle Childhood

By Johnson, Sarah; Li, Jianghong et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2013 | Go to article overview

Mothers' and Fathers' Work Hours, Child Gender, and Behavior in Middle Childhood


Johnson, Sarah, Li, Jianghong, Kendall, Garth, Strazdins, Lyndall, Jacoby, Peter, Journal of Marriage and Family


This study examined the association between typical parental work hours (including nonemployed parents) and children's behavior in two-parent heterosexual families. Child behavior was measured by the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) at ages 5, 8, and 10 in the Western Australian Pregnancy Cohort (Raine) Study (N = 4,201 child-year observations). Compared to those whose fathers worked fewer hours per week, children whose fathers worked 55 hours or more per week had significantly higher levels of externalizing behavior. This association was not explained by father - child time during the week, poorer family functioning, or overreactive parenting practice. Further, when stratifying the analysis by child gender, this association appeared to exist only in boys. Mothers' work hours were unrelated to children's behavioral problems. The role of parent and child gender in the relationships between parental work hours and children's behavioral problems, together with mediating factors, warrants further investigation.

Key Words: maternal employment, mental health, middle childhood, parental investment/involvement, paternal employment, work hours.

Although the average amount of time parents spend with their children has increased in recent years (Bianchi & Milkie, 2010), the quantity and quality of parent -child time is still raised as a concern. Studies in the United States and Australia point to a desire among parents to work fewer hours and spend more time with their children and a wish among children that parents would come home from work less tired and stressed (Bianchi & Milkie; Galinsky, 1999; Pocock & Clarke, 2005).

Despite continuing concerns of parents and children, the extent to which long parental work hours pose a problem for children and how they may do so remain unclear. It is assumed that time with children is compromised when parents work long hours, but few studies have tested this empirically. Other research usually examines mothers' work hours in isolation from fathers' work hours. Mechanisms linking parental work hours to child outcomes are rarely tested, and virtually all studies assume that girls and boys will show the same pattern of outcomes to their mothers' or fathers' time constraints. We address these limitations and focus our analysis on boys' and girls' emotional and behavioral problems, rates of which, in affluent Western countries, remain high (10% to 20% of children at some point in time; Kieling et al., 2011). Emotional and behavioral problems in childhood can set a trajectory of psychopathology later in life (Repetti, 2005), and via poorer literacy, numeracy, and school achievement, constrain later employment prospects and life chances in adulthood (Li, McMurray, & Stanley, 2008; Maggi, Irwin, Siddiqi, & Hertzman, 2010).

Our aim is to extend current knowledge about the relationship between both mothers' and fathers' work hours in two-parent heterosexual families and child behavior. Our paper makes the following contributions. First, we consider typical work patterns within two-parent families; therefore, we include nonemployed parents and take into account the gender patterning of working hours found in Australia (mothers tend to occupy jobs with short part-time hours and fathers almost exclusively work full-time, often with long hours; Charlesworth, Strazdins, O'Brien, & Sims, 201 1). It is important to note that the aim of this paper is not to directly compare the effects of mothers' and fathers' work hours on child behavior, but to examine whether parental work hours affect boys and girls differently. Second, we test three plausible mediating mechanisms linking work hours to child behavior: reduced parental time during the week, ineffective (overreactive) parenting, and poorer family functioning. Third, we examine child gender as a moderating factor (see conceptual model in Figure 1). Gender identity and gender distinctions in the parent -child relationship (especially same-gender parents and children) are central to this paper. …

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