Children whose mothers are employed develop no differently from youngsters whose mothers stay at home, suggest preliminary results of a five-year study of 130 children presented this week at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting.

These new findings are the latest chapter in the ongoing debate about the effects of maternal employment on the long-term welfare of a child. More than half of American mothers with children under 6 are employed.

"We found that maternal employment is not in and of itself a variable which influences a child's development," said educational psychologist Adele Gottfried, one of the authors of the study. The results indicate, she said, that the child's development is more a function of the parents' personalities and the type of home environment they create for their child.

They also discovered that a mother's attitude toward her work and the flexibility of the job are important variables in how employed mothers relate to their children. Women who said financial necessity was their main reason for working and whose jobs were less flexible reported higher stress in relating to their children than women who said they were primarily working for personal satisfaction and who had flexible jobs.

Gottfried, a psychology professor at California State University at Northridge, her husband, Allen, a psychology professor at California State at Fullerton, and UCLA psychologist Kay Bathurst began studying the 130 children when the youngsters were 1 year old. The study will end next year when the youngsters are 6.

Until age 4, the children -- who were all from white, middle-income families -- were tested every six months with a battery of measures, including math and language skills, motor ability and social skills, plus how well they interacted with other youngsters. After age 4, testing was done yearly. In addition, the children's home environment was monitored throughout the study with tests that gauged such factors as the child's birth order and how the parents related to each other.

Slightly more than a third of the mothers were employed at the beginning of the study, but by the time the children reached age 5, more than half (56 percent) of the mothers in the study were working. More than 90 percent of the children were from intact families.

"On the whole," Gottfried reported, "a favorable picture emerged from our data regarding the role of maternal employment in children's development."

Home environment, however, was a significant factor in children's development, the Gottfrieds report. They said a positive home environment includes elements such as "providing novel stimulation," "mastery skills" -- such as teaching preschoolers colors and numbers -- and offering "challenging experiences."

"A variable that is emerging as very important is reading aloud to the children," Adele Gottfried. "These things are important for children's development, but not whether their mothers work."

Based on the results of this study, "mothers who are employed can provide the same kind of environment as mothers who are not employed," Gottfried said. "And they can be good environments or bad environments. It really has nothing to do with maternal employment."

Maternal attitude toward their employment did influence how mothers related to their children, noted the researchers. They asked mothers in the study to rate how much of their work was for personal satisfaction and how much was for financial reasons.

"We found that a woman who rates herself higher on personal satisfaction tends to feel less stressed in relating to her child, tends to feel that her employment has a positive influence on her child's emotional and social and intellectual development, and tends to feel capable of handling the responsibilities of home and family life," Gottfried said. Such a woman is also more likely to report that her job is flexible regardless of occupation.

In addition, the study found that when a mother's personal satisfaction was high, she also viewed her husband as being more involved with the children.

By contrast, mothers who rated income as the predominant reason for working "tended to feel more stressed in relating to their children, tended to feel less capable in balancing family and work responsibilties, tended to feel less satisfied, worked more hours and reported that their jobs had less flexibility."

The researchers also tested whether women with more positive attitudes about their jobs and personal lives might be providing better home environments for their children, and again found no relationship.

Also unrelated to a child's development, at least according to this study, was the number of hours a woman worked outside the home.

Maternal employment forces fathers to become more involved with their children, Gottfried found. "Our developmental psychology literature showed very important roles for fathers," Gottfried said, "in the child's intellectual and social development for both boys and girls."

The issue of child development in an age where two-income families are often the norm is an issue "not of employment of the mother," Gottfried summed up, but of a good home environment for children. "And that," she said, "can be done in employed situations or in situations where the mother doesn't work."

The key finding, she said, is that "women don't need to feel guilty."