Living at home helps young mothers stay in school

July 16, 2004

Federal law requires that unmarried, minor-aged mothers who receive public assistance live at home (or in an approved adult-supervised setting). One rationale for this policy is that a young mother's parents might help her finish school if the family shares a home. Yet critics of the policy worry about the potential harm if the young mothers' parents can't or won't provide help with the baby. Plus, staying in their parents' home might be stressful or even dangerous if the daughters didn't get along with their parents before the baby was born, or if family relationships were abusive.

To explore this issue, we used the Infant Health and Development Program (IHDP), a survey that followed more than 550 mothers and their low birthweight, premature babies from birth through age 3. We focused on mothers who were 13 to 25 when their children were born. The study measured school enrollment six times during the three-year period, and parenting skills twice, including whether young mothers knew the age at which children typically accomplished certain milestones, the rigidity of their parenting beliefs, and the level of warmth and learning stimulation in their interactions with their child.

We found that living at home helped teenage mothers stay in school during the first two years of their babies' lives but had little effect on their parenting. In contrast to our study, prior research had found that young mothers who lived at home were less skilled as parents.

Our findings suggest that this correlation may not reflect a true consequence of living at home. Rather, some characteristics of the young mothers (such as their maturity level) may have resulted in their staying home and their problems parenting their toddler. Thus, instead of being a causal factor for poor parenting, living at home is a marker for young mothers who are at risk for poor parenting.

On the other hand, our results suggest that more schooling may be a real outcome of staying at home (possibly because the mothers received more encouragement and/or more help with child care).

Although these are seemingly common-sense findings, this study is important for policymakers and practitioners because it enables them to target the proper kind of assistance to young mothers and their parents. For instance, practitioners can use this information to offer assistance to grandparents, young mothers and children who live together. Co-parenting grandparents may benefit from services that offer them respite and support, like "grandparents night out" or up-to-date information on nutrition. Young mothers at risk of poor parenting may benefit from interventions that help them deal with the challenge of caring for a newborn.

While this study seems to confirm the benefit lawmakers had in mind in changing welfare laws in the late 1990s, the data we used were collected before welfare reform. Thus, the results might be different today. For instance, the teenage mother's own parents might not be as available to provide support because current welfare policy might require that they work outside the home.

Also, because the parents in this study all had low birthweight babies, it is also possible we might find different results studying parents of higher birthweight babies.
-end-
Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 75, Issue 4, Extended Households and the Life Course of Young Mothers: Understanding the Associations Using a Sample of Mothers with Premature, Low Birthweight Babies by R.A. Gordon, University of Illinois at Chicago; P.L. Chase-Lansdale, Northwestern University; and J. Brooks-Gunn, Columbia University. Copyright 2004 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.

*Please contact Karen Melnyk at SRCD (see above) for author availability and contact information.

Society for Research in Child Development

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