Work & Family: What Your Kids Learn From Your Job

Most parents know that children learn a lot by observing the adults in their lives, but how often do you think about what your work life - your schedule, your attitude toward and your comments about your job - is teaching your children?

By Sarah Bennett-Astesano

"Work is boring because all you do is go to meetings; you never do anything fun," says 6-year-old Chloe, whose mom is the publications director for a high-tech firm.

One child's opinion may be amusing to a mom who likes her job just fine, thank you. But it raises an interesting question. What are your kids learning about the world of work from your job?

It's a relevant question for most of us. Work is a big part of American family life, since in the vast majority of families, both adults have paying jobs:

In 61 percent of two-parent, married-couple families, both parents worked, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' most recent numbers.

Seventy percent of all moms with kids under age 18 work.

The average annual family work hours increased approximately 15 percent from 1975 through the late 1990s, according to The State of Working America 2004-2005 from the Economic Policy Institute.

If work is a big part of adults' lives, it's naturally a big part of kids' lives. So what should parents know about the messages kids are getting about work - and how they're getting them?

Modeling to Young Children

Children typically learn about work in two ways: by watching their parents and by being taught about work by the adults around them. Increasingly, the teaching is less about the content of the work, and more about how to balance work and family obligations.

Parents of young children can communicate about their jobs with a few simple words (see "Introducing Children to Your Work World"), but they should also know that they're modeling attitudes about work even when they don't actively talk about it.

"This type of learning rarely means being taught directly from sermons on the value of such things as work," says George Scarlett, a child development expert at Tufts University who studies how children develop a sense of identity. Scarlett describes kids' learning at this stage as the result of daily conversations and observing - and absorbing - parents' attitudes. Parents need to be conscious of their tone when they discuss work, he says, rather than focusing only on what they say about work when intentionally "teaching" their kids.

Experts agree that very young children don't necessarily need to know details of their parents' work lives in order to learn something valuable about work.

"When my daughter asks me about my work, I have always been very vague about the details," says Amber Jamanka, who works in public health and is the mother of a 6-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son. "I'm not ready to talk to her about these topics."

Jamanka and her daughter came up with a phrase to use - "mom helps keep people safe" - rather than a job title or a description of the actual tasks. When that wasn't quite enough for a school project, Jamanka explained that she was like a detective, helping to find out what makes people sick or keeps them healthy.

"It's useful for parents to talk about their work at home, and to talk about the good parts as well as the bad parts," says Ann Crouter, a professor of human development and director of the Center for Work and Family Research at Penn State University. "If a parent has had a tiring day, for example, it's fine to mention that. But I'd try to balance that on other days by mentioning what went well at work."

Introducing Kids to Your Work World

At one time or another, every working parent has probably said something vague to his or her children about "work ethic" or "professional responsibility." But without some context these words aren't likely to mean much. Before you can introduce these concepts, try making them relevant by introducing your children to the realities of your job.

The Ms. Foundation, sponsors of the annual Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work® Day, offers these tips:

 Take a photograph of your workplace home to your children, so they have a visual image of where you spend your time at work.

 Tell them why you work. Sure, most of us work for money, but there's usually more to it than that. Let your kids know the full array of reasons you do what you do. Even if you are working mainly for the paycheck, you can explain why you are in that situation and what you hope will be different for them when they're working.

 Talk about your bad days and your good days. Explain what you find interesting about your work, and what lessons you've learned. If you've had a bad day, talk about it directly and honestly with your children - in terms they can understand - stressing that it isn't their fault you are upset. Share with them the positive ways you have found for handling stress; that will help them learn to cope with difficulties too.

 Take advantage of life lessons. Some parents like to use their work stories to teach kids how important it is to be able to get along with a wide variety of people. Emphasize how important it is to not just complain about problems, but to try to fix them. The key is to always be conscious of the message you are sending to your children.

 Pretend to switch roles. A doctor can let her daughter play with her stethoscope; a secretary can help her kids set up an office, complete with a phone, a headset and an old computer. Kids learn through doing, and when you watch them pretend to do what you do, you'll get a good picture of how they view your work.

 Know when to leave your work at the office. For some of us, it's hard not to go on and on about our jobs - if only because we spend so much time and effort on them. But our kids need us to focus on them, too.

Reprinted with permission from Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work® Day.

Not surprisingly, research detailed in the book Ask the Children, by work-family expert Ellen Galinsky of the New York-based Families and Work Institute, has shown that negative moods can "spill over" from work to family, and that this colors children's perspective on work. Experts encourage parents to mention their pride and pleasure in work, even if it's a few brief words.

Jamanka says she's pleased that although her daughter can't pronounce "epidemiology," she has developed a positive association with her mom's job. "She said, 'You like your work because you like helping people.' That made me happy," Jamanka says. "That's exactly what I would have wanted to convey to her about my work."

The Elementary Years: A Time to Teach Balance

Children between ages 6 and 11 start to identify closely with their parents and are open to learning from them about the external world, says Scarlett. In fact, the annual Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work® initiative aims to give kids, ages 8 to 12, a look inside their parents' workplaces. Created by the Ms. Foundation for Women in 1993 and originally called "Take Our Daughters to Work® Day," its goal was to introduce girls to broad career options. But in 2002, the organization renamed the initiative to include boys.

"For girls to take full advantage of the opportunities the program helped create, boys need encouragement to reach their full potential in both their work and family lives," Ms. Foundation President and CEO Sara Gould said at the time. The program maintains its educational objectives, teaching kids about what's involved in various careers, but its main focus is now on teaching children about managing the demands of work.

"Today, parents teach their children how to balance a full plate in life," says LaWanda Abel, Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work® program manager. "Work, family and community achievements equally."

The program features an activity guide designed to promote kids' thinking about these issues. It includes an exercise in which children answer questions about their future home and work lives, as well as what the roles of men and women should be. This helps children build awareness of how they might approach the challenges of managing work and family life, and deal with common problems, such as whether to work late to finish an important project or attend a child's school play.

Alec McKinney can relate to that goal. A father of three boys, ages 3, 6 and 9, McKinney says his kids probably think he works too much. His sons aren't sure what he does on the computer, but they resent the time it takes out of their family lives.

"Our children know we think it's important for us to do work that's valuable," he says. "But I don't hide my annoyance at having to work during family time."

To minimize the disruptions, McKinney finds himself working at all hours of the night, with the result that he's actually around during the boys' waking hours more than many dads. As a research analyst, McKinney knows to be alert to the tradeoffs over the long term, noting that his kids will need parental involvement more, not less, as they enter the teen years.

McKinney's concerns about time with his children are well-founded. Research suggests that when fathers work very long hours (more than 60 hours a week) and also feel overloaded, their relationships with their adolescent children suffer, and that both adolescents and fathers in this situation have more difficulty seeing one another's perspectives.

"For both mothers and fathers," Crouter says, "we have found that high levels of work pressure are linked to feelings of being overloaded. And feelings of overload, in turn, are related to higher levels of conflict with kids."

So work's biggest liability may be the stress that comes with it. But the good news, both Crouter and Scarlett say, is that most research shows that work itself, and even children's participation in it - helping a parent put together the handouts for the next day's presentation, for example - doesn't have a negative effect on kids. How and what children learn is really based on how parents handle their obligations.

In the end, in order to prepare children for work, parents need to be conscious about their relationships with their children and their own work-life balance. "We depend on their being attached to us, their parents, enough to identify with us when they are older children," Scarlett says. "So that if we value work and lead good, productive and balanced work lives, the process of identification will help to prepare them to do the same."



Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents, by Ellen Galinksy, William Morrow, 1999. Provides a detailed and thorough background from a major study conducted by the Families and Work Institute.

On the Web

Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work® Day - Features activities for this annual day, along with year-round tips for helping kids understand your work.


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The Quest For Work-life Balance

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