First 12 months with mum: will you be happier later on?

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In Episode 3 of Series 3 of the DIAL Podcast, Katharina Heisig and Larissa Zierow from DIAL’s IMCHILD project discuss their research looking at the impacts of parental leave reform in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). They discuss the happiness outcomes of adults who, as children, as the result of the policy reforms, spent 12 months at home with their mother rather than in State run childcare. 

The baby year parental leave reform in the GDR and its impact on children’s long-term life satisfaction is a DIAL Working Paper by Katharina Heisig and Larissa Zierow from DIAL’s IMCHILD project. 


In Episode 3 of Series 3 of the DIAL Podcast, Katharina Heisig and Larissa Zierow from DIAL’s IMCHILD project discuss their research looking at the impacts of parental leave reform in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). They discuss the happiness outcomes of adults who, as children, as the result of the policy reforms, spent 12 months at home with their mother rather than in State run childcare. 

The baby year parental leave reform in the GDR and its impact on children’s long-term life satisfaction is a DIAL Working Paper by Katharina Heisig and Larissa Zierow from DIAL’s IMCHILD project. 

Christine Garrington  0:00

Welcome to DIAL, a podcast where we tune into evidence on inequality over the lifecourse. In this series we are discussing emerging findings from DIAL research. Our guests today are Larissa Zierow and Katharina Heisig from the IMCHILD project which is looking at the impact of childhood circumstances, on how children get on in life. They’ve been investigating the effects of parental leave policy reforms to see whether children who get to spend the first 12 months at home with their mother, are happier, later on in life. I started by asking Larissa, why they chose the former German Democratic Republic, as the setting for their research?

Larissa Zierow 0:36

You wonder why we choose a reform of a country that is not existing anymore but we thought it’s straightforward to look at the GDR’s reform, using this context we did not face two problems, which other research on parental leave, reform, usually face. The first thing is that in other countries, which other studies are using for evaluating the reforms, they usually not all women go to the labour market and not all women go to work. If you want to measure causal effects of parental leave reform this is not so good because it’s just a selective group of women who will be targeted by the reform, and in the GDR. It was the case that every woman was kind of in the same boat, because they all went to work. Mothers also, and also mothers mostly work full time. And this just leaves us with a better setting to measure causal effects of the parental leave reform.

Katharina Heisig 1:41

Actually there is a second technical problem. Other studies have, which is, in our opinion even more severe, children from very different families are systematically cared for in different types of childcare you know? This means that worse off children are typically cared for in low quality care for example and better off children are rather cared for in high quality care. There are also severe differences between public and private forms of childcare, as well as that there are a lot of difference between formal and informal types of childcare. The effect, the authors of previous studies measured, these effects depend traditionally on the fact, which kind of child goes to, which kind of childcare, and that’s also a big problem, you know, if you want to measure a causal effect. In the GDR there was just one type of childcare, actually, that was standardised, it was state provided, childcare centres that were supervised by the health ministry, and basically all childcare centres were almost the same. Be it the curriculum and levels of teacher education or the group sizes for example, right.

Christine Garrington 2:50

And what about the parental leave policy reform itself, can you just explain that to us.

Katharina Heisig 2:55

This law, we use as a setting, it became effective with the first of May in 1986. Before this reform, mothers with just one child, they received five months of paid maternal leave only. Only mothers with at least two children warranted 12 months of paid parental leave. And this was the case since 1976, with the first of May 1986 all mothers receive between 60 and 80% of their wage, while they were on leave. Yeah, with the help of the setting we look actually at the question whether there is an effect of extending parental leave from five to 12 months.

Christine Garrington 3:32

So what specifically was it that you wanted to look at when it came to this policy reform and its potential benefits.

Katharina Heisig 3:38

So, in general, we were interested in the benefits of parental leave on a child’s development. Of course, there are already plenty of other research papers on the topic, but all the papers have these problems going on we already mentioned, We decided to look at overall life satisfaction, which, in a sense comprises all the outcomes other papers use such as education, health, and individual behaviour, for example.

Christine Garrington 4:06

And Larissa where did you get your information from and why was it such a good resource for looking at this particular group of people in this particular way on this particular topic?

Larissa Zierow 4:16

Yeah we used the German Social Economic Panel as a data source it’s a representative sample of all people living in Germany. We discovered that it would be perfect for our study, because of many reasons. First of all we have to know whether individuals actually were born in the GDR, and so we got this information on about 1,100 individuals. We also needed of course the information on whether they had siblings because the reform was different for firstborn or later born children of families, and this information was also included in the panel data. We also wanted to have life satisfaction, as a outcome variable, this is also included in this data set, we also use some other data sources to check whether mothers, actually use the parental leave, that was granted them by the reform and we found out that 95% of all mothers, actually use that. So that was also important additional information.

Christine Garrington 5:25

So when you looked at the happiness of those children who did get to spend those first 12 months at home with mom, those first 12 months. What did you find?

Larissa Zierow 5:33

Yeah, we find that children who are now adults, they show an increase in their life satisfaction, as a consequence of the reform. And we thought that this is very interesting, since if you think about it only individuals who are satisfied with their life are usually more positive, they’re successful regarding all different things. This is something which is a good thing for every country, and increasing the well-being of individuals, it’s mainly one of the most important goals of a welfare state also.

Christine Garrington 6:12

Indeed, and how did that compare then with the people who had spent just five months with their mom or in childcare?

Larissa Zierow 5:33

The increase is eight percent higher score in life satisfaction compared to individuals who just spent the first five months with their mom. Yeah, this is pretty high. If you compare to other studies on life satisfaction. This 8% increase.

Christine Garrington 6:36

And now you delved a little deeper to see whether some of the some of that greater happiness was actually down to developing personalities or people changing as they as they get older, what did you find there Katharina?

Katharina Heisig 6:48

Yeah, we were really interested in that question actually, whether the increase in life satisfaction was driven by, you know, for example, more open, or more positive people. There is this so called attachment theory of Bowlby, John Bowlby who suggests that spending the first year of life with your primary caregivers of mother and/or father is very important for developing trust in detachment, for example, which then affects the personality. There are these personality traits, called the Big Five. This is agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and openness to new things, and which we analysed in this follow ups. And yeah, when we start to suggest that, especially children from worse off families, but also boys actually benefit in the long run from this parental leave reform. In terms of those big five personality development.

Christine Garrington 7:47

Okay, so we might also assume I guess that better off children might have better health, as they grow up and I wonder if that was a factor?

Katharina Heisig 7:56

Yeah, correct. This was actually a factor. This is, yeah exactly what we find. And what we found in terms of overall health of the observed persons from better off families. And we do not find such positive health effects for children from worse off families. Yeah we explain this difference by the good healthcare situation in the East, GDR’s childcare facilities, which we thought might have been better for the children from worse off families. But the situation was not as good as to compensate for the good situation better off children had at home with their families. And yeah what we also find is that boys do more in terms of health to this parental leave perform.

Christine Garrington 8:45

So, taking everything into account. What would you say are the key points to emerge Larissa?

Larissa Zierow 8:51

Yeah, I think the most important point would be that we can say with our study that granting paid parental leave in the whole first year of the child has really long-lasting positive effects and all children would benefit from that. And we find this, especially for the outcome of life satisfaction when we look at different subgroups of children we can also say that boys benefit in terms of their health and personality development from this whole year of parental leave. It could be that it’s more important for boys to be close with their moms in the first year than it is for girls, it could also well be that families, treat girls and boys differently, but we don’t know this from our study, this is just speculation. We also see that children from better off families benefit in terms of their health and children from worse off families benefit in terms of their personality development. So we see that there are different effects of the reform by subgroup but in general, our finding is that it’s beneficial for for all, all families and for all children.

Christine Garrington 10:04

Yeah, that’s really interesting and you, as you’ve said looked at this in a very clear, very clear policy context. So are there lessons for policy makers in Germany and beyond, would you say Katharina?

Katharina Heisig 10:15

Yeah, definitely. We think so. Well in Germany we actually already have more than one year of paid parental leave so far, like for Germany. We think it would be definitely of big interest to grant also father’s paid parental leave for the first months after their child is born. Yeah and how this affects the children right. For example, the thirty months came out in Sweden was introduced, for example, it would be interesting to see results of this kind of thirty months, but with a longer period. Where in many other countries, there is either no paid or just unpaid leave at all or just few weeks or months of paid parental leave, or a maternity leave. We think that our results show that offering 12 months of paid leave, so one year, definitely has benefits for children growing up. And we’re, you know, With this for your society as well. But we also know that these policies are very cost intensive governments for sure as to decide to have to decide on their own if they want to invest money in paid leave. But since we also really see positive effects for the children which are visible in the long run, we think it’s very good use of money.

Christine Garrington 11:32

There is a very clear message there. Now this research is part of a wider project looking at the impact of childhood circumstances on individual outcomes over people’s life course what more can we expect from the project.

Larissa Zierow 11:44

Yeah so one project linked to this reform would be to look at the effect of the paid parental leave on mothers in the overall approach that we actually are interested in outcomes over the life course so I am working on two other projects. One is on all the primary school students, and we got investigator reform which introduced all the schools in Germany. And we compare the effects of attending an all-day primary school instead of our half-day primary school children. We find small positive effects of all the all day schools but they, the effects actually differ a lot by subgroup of students and for some subgroups, attending an all day school is not always positive. And then other project, there we look at the role of interim degrees in secondary school, so getting a degree, already after nine or 10 years of school before getting to the to the highest degree of the academic track, and we find that interim degrees, somehow serve as a fallback option, and the milestone and especially students, at the risk of dropping out of school, profit from from such interim degrees and are more motivated by them.

Christine Garrington 13:13

Katharina Heisig and Larissa Zierow from the IMCHILD project we’re talking to Chris Garrington for this episode of the DIAL podcast. The baby year parental leave reform in the GDR and its impact on children’s long-term life satisfaction is a DIAL Working Paper available on the website at Don’t forget to subscribe to the DIAL podcast, to access earlier and forthcoming episodes. Thanks for listening.