Children with Parents Who Work
Why Ask the Kids?
For the first time, someone has asked American kids what they think about working parents. Ellen Galinsky is author of Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think about Working Parents. We asked Ellen to share some of the insights she's gained from the hundreds of conversations she's had with kids about their working parents.
Q: Why hasn't anyone asked kids what they think about working parents until now, and why did you feel it was important to know their opinions?
A: There are two reasons that we haven't asked children to weigh in on how they feel about their working parents. The first is that most parents have been afraid to ask and afraid to hear the answers. We tend to think that our children are going to be very critical of us. The second reason is a general feeling that we as parents know what's best for children so we don't need to ask them.
It's clear to me, after spending five years exploring children's views, that it's critical to know what they think. Most parents, I think, would agree. In this era of school shootings and increasing violence, it's important to know what's on children's minds.
Opening the channels of communication doesn't mean abdicating to children. It simply means listening and understanding. We're still the adults and the decision-makers.
Not a Balancing Act
Q: You say in Ask the Children that balancing work and family is the wrong way to discuss what working parents deal with on a day-to-day basis. You suggest using a new phrase, "navigating." Why is this a better description of managing the complexities of work and family life?
I found that many parents didn't like the notion of "balance." It sounded to them as if they had arrived at a perfect state, a state where work and family were equal. They knew that they were always in process and wanted a word that would describe this better.
Balance also implies an either/or situation. If you give to one side, you take away from the other. It implies that we are looking for the middle in a zero sum game. But neither parenting nor working is a zero sum game. If work is going well, that gives us more energy to invest in parenting.
I think "navigating" is a better word for several reasons. Navigating implies that we know we're always in process (as I am still with my now-grown children). With navigating, there can be good weather and stormy weather, just like parenting.
It's by dealing with the stormy times effectively that we're making the most important contributions as parents (such as teaching our children how to deal with their siblings without warfare). And with navigating, if we know where we want to go, we're more likely to get there.
It's the Little Things that Count
Q: If working parents could change one thing about the way they parent, what should it be?
Perhaps the best answer comes from children. I asked kids what they would remember most from this period in their lives. Children talked about how the small moments make a big difference... how a mother wakes her daughter up everyday, how a father cheers for his son at a sports event.
When children told me this, I said,"I bet your parents would be surprised. They would think you would remember the big events, the trips. Why are you talking about these everyday things?" The kids said that those big events happen only once or for a short time. It's the family traditions and routines that matter most.
Kids' main wish for their parents was that they be less tired and stressed. Children--and this goes for teenagers, too--really just want their parents to care, to focus on them, to listen. They want to know that they are priorities in their parents' lives.
Q: You offer many suggestions for parents on how to navigate the worlds of work and family and be better parents. What are some of your tips?
I have hundreds of tips for parents. But here's one about guilt: Instead of seeing guilt as an enemy, think of it as a fever. It's telling you that something is wrong--in the case of guilt, there's a clash between what you expect and what's actually happening.
Then ask yourself, is this expectation realistic? For example, if you're feeling guilty about snapping at your children at the end of the day, this may be a realistic expectation. You don't want to do this. Then you can work at finding ways to calm down before you come home or to tell your kids that you've had one of those days, it's not their fault, and you need a time-out.
Q: When you asked children about their own futures and whether or not they would work and have families, what did you learn?
A: Most kids expect to combine work and family life, but very few of them want to work harder than their parents. So I think it's possible that as our children come of age and enter the workforce, they'll put the brakes on the escalating cycle of work and more work. But of course, this remains to be seen.
I also learned that boys and girls also differ on their expectations about the roles of men and women. Boys are more traditional than girls. Boys' views stay the same but girls get even less traditional as they get older. I think it's important that families make it a point to talk about these issues with children.
For more information on the Families and Work Institute or to order publications, visit their website, www.familiesandwork.org.
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