Social “scientists” are sometimes mocked for producing results that are so obvious that it’s hard to imagine why someone bothered to investigate them. I’m sure you know that more experienced people tend to make better decisions, shoppers buy more when prices go down, and that people prefer an attractive date to one who’s not-so-good-looking. But if you were in doubt, social scientists have confirmed these obvious facts for you!
But other times, social scientists make claims that are so obviously dumb that it’s amazing they get the attention they do.
Such was the case this week, when considerable press attention was given to a study that concludes that the amount of time mothers spend with their children does not matter to young children’s or adolescents’ “behavioral, emotional, and academic outcomes.”
Mothers’ time makes no difference to how kids fare? Nope—or at least, in social science parlance, not a “statistically significant” difference. (There’s one small concession: more time by adolescences actively engaged with their mothers was found to have a “very small” effect in making them less likely to engage in delinquent behaviors.) The authors conclude that their “study upends the ideology of intensive mothering” and so mothers should “ease up.”
Of course, the media loved reading that the quantity of time mothers spend with children doesn’t matter: USA Today wrote that the study would “come as a relief to many parents,” while Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak wrote that this was proof that “working mothers need to stop beating themselves up.”
When social scientists write that they are “upending an ideology,” it’s time to suspect that they themselves might have an ideological axe to grind. And, when they prescribe that mothers should “ease up,” it seems that that they might—just might—be going beyond that distinction between facts and values that is supposed to be sacred to social science.
To consider further whether it could truly be the case that the amount of time mothers spend with their children just doesn’t matter to how kids fare, I consulted my in-house expert on this question, my nine-year-old son.
I described the study’s findings to him and asked him what he thought. Without hesitating, he replied, “Moms should spend as much time as possible with their kids.”
Surely mothers’ time with children—if one were to think about it from a social science perspective—is what would be called an optimization problem. Up to some point, a mother’s presence benefits their children and past that point she is hovering over them too much.
Arguing that the amount of time mothers spend with their children doesn’t matter defies common experience; when mothers spend time with their children they’re shaping the tastes, opinions, and experiences of the next generation. That has to matter, and matter a lot.
Recognizing that mothers’ time with the children does indeed matter very much shouldn’t be taken to mean that mothers who work and who pursue interests outside their homes aren’t doing right by their children. And yet the ideological tone of this study—and of its reception in the media—would seem to suggest that many people still defensively insist that it’s an all-or-nothing proposition: an “ideology of intensive mothering” or a mothering-doesn’t-matter ideology. I’d say it’s time for both of these ideologies to be “upended” so that thoughtful mothers—and fathers, and others too—can think about what children need to flourish.