A new survey conducted and released by the Pew Research Center found that while nearly half of children are growing up in a home where both parents work, most parents actually think that children are better off when one parent stays home.
The study asked 4,600 adults their opinions on working families. It found that 59 percent think it’s better for kids if only one parent works, while 39 percent think children are just as well off if both parents work. Of those polled, nearly half — 46 percent — were currently living in households where two parents work.
If this seems contradictory (why would a parent in a two-income household believe their life choices were damaging to their children?), keep in mind that the past few decades have seen a sea change in working parenthood. In 1970, only about a third of households — 31 percent — had two parents working. At that time, the most common arrangement by far was that the father worked full-time while the mother stayed home. So it’s possible (okay, likely) that attitudes haven’t caught up with the times.
For this survey, 53 percent of those 4,600 said it “didn’t matter” which parent stayed home, but an astounding 45 percent said the mother should be the one parent who doesn’t work. Just 2 percent of those asked said that the father should stay home. Men were more likely than women to hold the opinion that one parent (i.e., the mother) should stay home, at 63 versus 55 percent.
Interestingly, young men are even more likely than older ones to believe that one parent should stay home. Sixty-two percent of those asked (under the age of 30) said that only one parent should work, while 46 percent of young women said this. The large gulf here makes sense: Young women are busy building their careers, so why would they question the idea that they should be working?
Let’s set aside the fact that not every family consists of a mother and a father today, and let’s even set aside the fact that plenty of children are raised by one parent, not two. The data as presented here — that most parents work but continue to hold forth an ideal that the mom should stay home because it’s best for the children — completely ignores reality. For many families, it’s just not economically feasible for one parent to stay home full-time with children. In the U.S., families aren’t supported in all the ways that they could — and arguably, should — be. School days involve weird hours, child care is expensive, and wages for one person working full-time do not add up to what they did 30 years ago.
And, moreover, what exactly are we basing our concept of “best for the child” on, anyway? Is this even borne out by research? What we do know is that going to preschool is very good for children, and this means spending some time, at least, away from home.
The data here doesn’t reflect only parents’ views about babies, either: It’s a blanket answer to a question about children under the age of 18. Do we really believe, in 2016, that it’s preferable for a mother to stay at home while her children are at school eight hours a day? And if we do believe that, here’s another question: Why?
Even if we refuse to accept the reality that most parents in the United States work, we do not need to accept, in 2016, the completely baseless concept that it’s better for children to stay home with their mother than it is for them to stay home with their father. The percentage of stay-at-home fathers is still low, but has been rising steadily since the 1980s and was up to 16 percent in 2014. There’s no evidence to suggest that they do a worse job of caring for children than stay-at-home mothers do, regardless of how many “dumb dad” jokes there are.
Wouldn’t it be better to focus on making sure that people are actually compensated adequately for their working hours, that children’s school schedules fit their parents’ work schedules, and that parents have enough paid leave to spend extra time with their kids as needed, rather than simply continuing to believe that it used to be better, before, when women didn’t work outside the home? It’s probably no accident that these preferences break down along political party lines, with 67 percent of Republicans thinking one parent should stay home versus 50 percent of Democrats. After all, Democrats seem so much more committed to shaping and enacting policies that would help working families with an eye toward reality, not how things were in the year 1970.