Politics & Policy

Paid Parental Leave Helps Kids, Not Just Parents

A crucial aspect of the policy is too seldom discussed.

Paid parental leave is often discussed in terms of parents. It helps working mothers stay more attached to the labor force and boosts their future wages. It reduces families’ reliance on government benefits, such as food stamps. It allows fathers to spend more time with young children and share in the child-rearing.

But this leaves out the reason paid leave exists in the first place: There’s a new baby in the family. And this baby would benefit greatly from having a parent (or both parents) around.

On this, the research is clear. “What Children Need” is the title of a book by Columbia economist (and my friend) Jane Waldfogel, wherein she reviews the academic literature on what children at various ages need to develop and grow. She finds that a parent — and most research is centered around the mother — being actively present during the first year of a child’s life matters for a baby’s healthy development. This becomes much more difficult if a parent is working full-time.

Waldfogel’s book is a more comprehensive read than the latest book on this topic, Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters, in which psychoanalyst Erica Komisar argues that a mother being present in the first three years is crucial for child development. This is not just for breastfeeding or for big developmental milestones, but for the day-in-day-out of secure parental attachment, which is linked to a host of positive emotional, physical, and mental-health outcomes for children.

Of course, once one delves into the topic of infant care, inevitably hairs go up on the necks of working moms and working dads and stay-at-home dads and stay-at-home moms, all of whom are making deeply personal choices and often facing difficult realities.

But I point out this research for two important reasons: First, despite the evidence that babies benefit from being with their parents — especially in the early months — it is challenging for parents to be home with children after they are born. While some families desire and can afford for one parent to stay home with children, both parents work in most households with young children. One-quarter of households with children are headed up by single parents. Only 15 percent of working parents have access to a formal paid-leave policy upon the birth or adoption of a policy, and access to a formal paid-family-leave policy (or paid leave of any kind) dramatically drops off the further down the income ladder you are. As many as 40 percent of workers do not have access even to unpaid, job-protected leave. Paid parental leave creates more options for parents who want and need to work so that they can be present during this critical months.

Second, the question of what children need generates a rare and hopeful point of widespread, bipartisan agreement. For example, the majority of Americans support a parent being home to raise a child, and the majority of Americans support a paid-parental-leave policy, which by its very nature benefits only working parents. While these may look like conflicting data points between traditionalist Republicans wanting parents (usually moms) to stay home and liberal Democrats wanting to usher in European-style entitlements, at their core, these polls represent a wholly consistent, bipartisan, and research-supported view that there are significant benefits to children from being with their parents, especially in the early weeks and months. This is significant common ground that should not be overlooked and arguably should be the starting point of a policy discussion on paid parental leave.

By its very name, parental leave tells only half the story. What children need matters, too.

To be sure, what’s helpful for children inevitably runs into reality. From the best that I can tell, the childhood-development literature would suggest that at least six months to a year of parents being present with their children is what’s best from a childhood-development standpoint. This is beyond the duration of paid-leave proposals on either side of the political aisle. (To the extent that the Democrats’ Family Act reaches this by allowing two parents to stack leave back-to-back, it’s paired with leave for a wide variety of other uses, dramatically increasing the expense and making it a largely partisan policy.) What children need must be balanced with the economics — i.e., the potential for discrimination against female workers who may take extended leave — and our fiscal situation, wherein we have an unprecedented $21 trillion in federal debt.

And of course, paid parental leave is far from a panacea. Paid parental leave, however long, does not guarantee that a parent will spend that time being present and invested with children. Nor does it solve other significant work-family challenges that have emerged in our 21st-century economy, including workplace flexibility to attend children’s doctor appointments or parent-teacher conferences or breastfeed, access to high-quality child care, the earnings penalty for mothers, or sufficient family income so that one parent can stay home if he or she chooses. These situations are different from what it was like to raise children and work 50 years ago, and they require a creative set of new solutions.

But a paid-parental-leave policy would be a good start. It would provide more opportunity for children to bond with their parents than does the current status quo, wherein one-quarter of new mothers return to work two weeks after giving birth and fathers are still unlikely to take any parental leave at all. Significantly, the policy can be constructed in a way that is affordable, involves no new mandates on business, has bipartisan support, and benefits children in arguably their most crucial developmental stage.

By its very name, parental leave tells only half the story. What children need matters, too. Somewhere along the way, that’s been lost.

Abby M. McCloskey is an economist, is founder of McCloskey Policy LLC, and has advised numerous presidential campaigns. She is a member of the AEI-Brookings Working Group on Paid Leave.

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