Let me be first to admit that a review of Ask the Children seems out of place in the pages of Ideas on Liberty. Ellen Galinsky travels outside libertarian circles. She has filled her book with cheerful anecdotes, not policy prescriptions, and she has found audience with viewers of the Today Show, not the Lehrer News Hour. But the book’s central finding deserves illumination: there are as many ways to raise a happy child as there are children in the world.
What immediately distinguishes this book from hundreds of others on parenting, work, and family is Galinsky’s unconventional research method. She conducted the first comprehensive study ever that asked parents and children for their views on work and home life. She did what few researchers and policymakers dare to do: she gave up the “expert” pulpit to let families and children speak for themselves.
More than 1,000 children aged 8 to 18 graded their parents A, B, C, D, or F on a range of parenting skills. Questions took the form “What grade would you give your mother on . . . .” followed by 12 items including, “Making me feel important and loved” and “Encouraging me to want to learn and enjoy learning?” The questions were designed to assess a range of parenting skills that are strongly linked to children’s social and emotional development and success in school. Galinsky examined the children’s responses to see which characteristics of their parents’ lives were most predictive of how they viewed their parents’ skills. For instance, an analysis of the children’s responses showed that having a working mother was never predictive of how children assess their mother’s parenting skills. On the other hand, the study showed that the amount of time moms and dads spend with their children matters a great deal.
Reviews of Ask the Children have inspired headlines such as, “Vindication for moms of all vocations” and “New book may relieve working mothers’ guilt.” (That the book was marketed partly to moms who feel guilty about working outside the home is clear from the jacket cover. As one observer put it, “At last! It is time to end the endless debate, accept as children do that working parents are here to stay, and get on with improving the lives of these families and their children.”)
Many people will be tempted to see this book as settling the debate over whether mothers’ working is “good or bad” for children. Yet Galinsky cautions against that: “If the findings in this book are simply read and reported as another study that weighs in on whether mothers should or shouldn’t work, that would be a terrible misreading. This study, like many others, shows that the impact of parental employment on children depends on a number of factors, including whether the parent is doing what he or she thinks is right.” (Italics in the original.)
Drawing from her study and existing academic research, Galinsky concludes that the national debate about working and children is not an either-or proposition “as if one path is inherently good and the other bad.” Children’s outcomes depend on what parents do with their children when families spend time together and also on children’s experiences when their parents are absent. As she puts it, “What works for one person doesn’t work for another.”
Of particular interest is Galinsky’s discussion of the importance of “intentional parenting” and “parenting autonomy.” In short, she finds that better child outcomes are strongly related to the desire to parent and to the ability to raise children in ways parents think right. Parents who raise their children the way they want to are less likely to have children who are unhappy, have trouble getting along with other children, are unable to concentrate, or are nervous and high-strung. That is, parental freedom is good for children.
The list of factors that influence a child’s outcome is endless. A child’s age, gender, and temperament only begin the list. Next overlay family structure, family finances, and parenting skills. Then add peer influence and education systems. All those things matter, and they matter differently to different children. What works for one child doesn’t necessarily work for another. What seems certain is that child outcomes depend on many factors, not the least of which is parents’ freedom to make their own choices, a finding that begs simultaneously for more intentional parenting and planning and less state interference in the child-care arena.
Darcy Ann Olsen is director of education and child policy at the Cato Institute.