On Working Moms and Literacy

literacy working moms ronn torossian

Yesterday Phil Bryant set off a hullabaloo when he answered a question about children’s’ literacy during a Washington Post Live discussion panel. The question was about how things got to this point: that so many children just aren’t that good at reading. The Mississippi governor responded that the problem of poor reading results from having both parents working, especially “Mom.”

Bryant knew right away he was saying something unpopular and said he knew he was going to be flooded with emails the next day.

It would be nice to say that Bryant is wrong about working mothers and literacy, since according to a recent Pew Research poll, women are the major breadwinners for 40% of families with children in the United States. That’s compared to just 11% of breadwinners back in 1960. That’s an astonishing figure on its own, irrespective of the effects of this arrangement on children. A few decades ago, no one could have conceived of a world in which so many women would be supporting their families.

It Depends

But what is the effect on mom not being home on kids and literacy? Could a working mother be a factor in a child’s literacy skills or lack of them? The answer? It depends.

It’s certainly critical for children to hear conversation, to partake in conversation, and to be read to prior to first grade. In fact, by the time a child reaches school age, he better have a pretty good handle on basic literacy skills if good academic outcomes are to be expected. In the years before school, a child needs someone to play rhyming games with him and he needs to hear the cadence of speech in all its most interesting forms. When Mom plays, “This Little Piggy” with baby, it’s not just about having fun. It’s about developing literacy skills.

That said it doesn’t have to be Mom playing the games. It could be Dad. It could be a grandparent. It can be any caring adult.

Mother Child Bonding

What about a preschool teacher? In theory, there’s no reason on earth why a warm preschool teacher, devoted to her work, couldn’t further her charges’ literacy skills. Of course, that’s not the same as having the mother-child bonding thing as an aid to teaching verbal and other literacy skills, but it should do the trick nicely.

The bottom line is that Mom doesn’t have to be afraid to be out there in the workplace for the sake of putting bread on the table, as long as her child is in a suitable environment during the time that Mom is at work.

As philanthropist Elie Hirschfeld noted, “It doesn’t hurt to have extra support, whether its an afterschool program reading events like those held at Park East Day School, or reading at a public library.”

Kids need all the help they can get. And it doesn’t have to be from Mom.

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