Boys and girls begin to show differences in behavioral problems as young as 5 years old, finds a recent study in Western Australia.1 Sixteen percent to 20 percent of Australian fathers worked 55 or more hours per week, and were more likely to have young sons with a higher level of aggressive behavior, compared with boys whose dads worked fewer hours, said the study.
One possible explanation for these differences in child behavior could be that the absence of the same-gender parent (dad) due to long hours at work has a worse effect on a child (in this case, boy) than the absence of the opposite-gender parent (mom). To explore this possibility, the researchers examined child gender during a critical phase of development, middle childhood. This period before puberty is a time when children solidify their gender identity—when they see themselves as a “girl” or a “boy.”2
The study used data from the Western Australia Pregnancy Cohort (Raine) Study, with a sample of over 1,400 children in heterosexual two-parent families, mostly high income.3 The researchers analyzed the parent-reported (mostly mothers) Child Behavior Checklist, which measures changes in child behavior. They looked at children’s behavior at ages 5, 8, and 10, focusing on two types of behavior—externalizing (acting out, aggressiveness) and internalizing (withdrawing, anxiety).
Researchers looked at the breakdown of father-child interaction by gender: Boys whose fathers worked fewer than 55 hours a week acted out less, compared to boys whose fathers worked longer hours. No such significant difference was found for girls.
“I would expect to see similar results in lower SES [socioeconomic status] families,” said Jianghong Li of the Social Science Research Center in Berlin, one of the study authors. “Possibly, the link between fathers’ long work hours and sons’ behaviors might be even stronger because children from lower SES families may be doubly disadvantaged by a lack of adequate parental time when parents work long hours, [at] low income, and [with the] stress associated with low quality jobs.”
Another possible reason for behavioral problems in boys whose fathers work longer hours: The play time typical in father-son relationships that helps release boys’ high energy levels or aggressive behaviors is missing, suggested Li and her co-authors.
They found no association between mothers’ work hours and child behavior during middle childhood—consistent with prior work of others, including a literature review of work and family research by Suzanne Bianchi of the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-author, Melissa Milkie of the University of Maryland.4
Li believes that the negative effect of fathers’ long work hours could be even stronger for American fathers. “I would expect similar results for American families,” said Li. She thinks that family and social support networks are weaker in the United States than in Australia. Combined with the greater share of U.S. mothers with young children who work outside the home, U.S. fathers’ very long work hours may have even a stronger negative impact on children, in Li’s opinion.
Bianchi and Milkie recommended that contributors to the work-family policy literature look more at the balance between work and family life.5 “The 24-7 economy may be adding to the challenges faced by parents in managing their work and parenting commitments, when jobs require them to work unsociable hours,” Australian researchers said in a press release.6 This study provides further evidence to support equal opportunities for both parents to share parenting and work responsibilities.