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David Baxter PhD

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Working moms' kids do fine, as long as moms keep tabs
July 29, 2004

Upshot of new studies: Keep asking about child's activities, set boundaries

There's reassuring news for mothers concerned that their challenging work lives could hurt their school-age kids: Teenagers aren't more likely to dabble in drugs and sex just because their moms work long hours, and preteens left ''home alone'' often aren't the worse for it, suggest studies to be reported Friday.

Most research on the children of working mothers has focused on preschoolers. But newer studies, due at the American Psychological Association meeting in Honolulu, are looking at how older kids fare. In a confidential survey, 496 teens reported habits such as drinking, smoking, drugs, sex and not using seat belts or helmets. The teenagers' mothers reported how many hours they worked.

A mom's hours on the job wasn't the key factor in determining a teenager's habits, says study leader Elizabeth Ozer of the University of California Medical School in San Francisco. But the more she felt she could exert some control over his activities, the less likely the teen was to be doing dangerous things.

Of course, some kids might be pistols and more difficult to control, Ozer says. But knowledge is power: The teens said that parents who try to find out what they're up to usually do know, and those whose parents tried to find out were least likely to do risky things.

''The take-home message is . . . parents should keep asking about activities, and set limits,'' she says.

In another study, 206 kids in first through fourth grade were followed for three years. At the start, none stayed alone or with siblings under 18 after school; three years later, about half did. Kids left alone were no more likely than the supervised ones to be aggressive or disobedient, according to parents.

But if children feared staying home alone at the start, they were more likely to be depressed three years later, whether left alone or not, say Harvard University psychologists Kathleen McCartney and Kristen Bub, the study leaders.

One red flag: For unsupervised kids, teachers rated boys as having poorer work habits than girls; among supervised kids, there was no gender difference. ''The boys may need to be on a shorter leash or they may be pressuring parents to leave them alone too early,'' McCartney says.

Children often push for freedom but crave limits, says Columbia University psychologist Suniya Luthar, who has followed 350 affluent Connecticut students from sixth through 10th grade. ''They do this 'back off!' thing, this dance of independence, but they really want you standing behind them.''

In her study, the most powerful protection against problems -- depression, anxiety, drug use, bad grades -- was a child feeling close to his mother, saying she was involved in his life, knew his friends and where he was. ''And plenty of working mothers are involved,'' Luthar says.
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