Fast Company

Life/Work - Issue 31

In My Humble Opinion: "What parents seem to be in denial about is the effect that their pressured lives have on their kids."

For several weeks now, I've found myself returning again and again to the findings contained in a new book titled "Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents" (William Morrow, 1999). Written by Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, the book is based on a work-family study of more than 1,000 children in grades 3 through 12, along with 600 of their parents.

Amazingly, this is the first time that a researcher has systematically explored with kids the issues that have prompted acrimonious debate among their parents for more than two decades. My interest in what kids have to say about their working parents is partly personal. My wife and I have both pursued demanding careers while raising two children: Kate, 18, and Emily, 14. But for all of our struggling over the issues of family and work, I had never asked either of my children many of the questions that Galinsky poses in her study. The reason, I realize now, is that I was afraid that their answers would fuel my guilt and break my heart. After reading "Ask the Children," I know that I'm not alone.

The book's findings are complex and sometimes contradictory. Galinsky finds hope in the evidence that working parents are devoting more cumulative time to their children than they did 20 years ago, primarily because fathers are becoming more involved. She takes it as a sign of progress that a large majority of both men and women now believe that a child can fare just as well if the man is the primary caregiver and the woman is the primary breadwinner.

Galinsky also takes heart in the fact that a mother's employment status is never predictive of the evaluation that her children give her on her parenting skills. Nor does the employment status of a mother affect how much time her children say that they spend with her.

There is also encouraging news in some of the kids' responses: Nearly 75% of the kids studied believe that their mothers handle work-family issues well, and 69% feel that way about their fathers. While they still generally feel better cared for by their mothers than by their fathers, a substantial majority give both parents an A when asked to assign grades in a dozen categories: "Being there for me when I am sick," "Raising me with good values," "Appreciating me for who I am," and "Making me feel important and loved."

But the more I grappled with Galinsky's statistics, the more disturbing I found them. For one thing, they reveal an often-gaping disparity between kids and their parents over the issue of how work affects the quality of parenting. The findings also suggest that parents often dramatically exaggerate the amount of time that they spend with their children, and that kids themselves underplay the toll that the lack of time with their parents takes on their lives. Finally, there is considerable evidence of a "spillover" effect: When parents feel stressed at work, their parenting suffers.

Nowhere is the disconnection between parents and children more achingly graphic than in one simple question that was posed to kids: "If you were granted one wish to change the way that your mother's/your father's work affects your life, what would that wish be?" Parents were asked to predict how their children would respond to this question. Nearly 56% of them assumed that their child's top choice would be to have more time together. In fact, only 10% of kids said that they'd like more time with their mothers, and only 15.5% said the same about their fathers. By contrast, 34% of kids said that what they want most is for their parents to be less stressed, or less tired, because of their work. Astonishingly, just 2% of parents guessed that this would be their child's highest priority.

I say "astonishingly" because stress and fatigue are familiar experiences to nearly every working parent. What parents seem to be unaware of -- or in denial about -- is the effect that their pressured lives have on their kids. Americans across the board are working longer hours than ever.

More to the point, a vast majority of working parents in the study reported that their jobs leave them with less energy to do things with their children. Both fathers and mothers acknowledged a higher tendency to withdraw from their kids whenever work becomes especially demanding. And kids themselves are acutely conscious of the quality of attention that they receive. They give high marks to parents who focus on them exclusively, and much lower marks to those who do not.

Equally disturbing is the evidence that parents may be deluding themselves about the actual amount of time that they do spend with their kids: 28% of dual-earner parents said that they play or exercise with their children every day, for example, but only a minuscule 6% of kids agreed that this is the case. Meanwhile, 36% of dual-earner parents said that they do homework with their kids either "five or six times a week" or "every day," but only 19% of kids concurred.

Who to believe? Galinsky is inclined to side with the kids -- on the grounds that parents have more incentive to say what they believe is socially desirable, and what they themselves wish were so. "We want so badly to be good parents that we tend to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt," Galinsky explains, putting it gently. My own, harsher conclusion: We're not giving kids the time that they need, and we'd rather exaggerate our involvement with them than face the truth and find a way to change it.

The impact of time is palpable. Kids whose parents spend less time with them are more likely to have trouble getting along with other children; to experience difficulty concentrating; to feel sad and depressed; to be nervous and high-strung; and to experience feelings of inferiority and worthlessness. "Again and again," Galinsky says, "we found that the quantity of time spent with mothers and fathers matters a great deal."

Conversely, kids who spend more time with their parents clearly appreciate it. Among children who spend six hours a day with their mother on workdays, for example, 83% gave her an A for making them feel important, compared with 62% of kids who spend an hour or less a day with their mother. And 90% of kids who spend six hours a day with their mother gave her an A for raising them with good values, compared with just 55% of children who spend an hour or less a day with their mother.

So what to make of this powerful evidence that kids need not only more time but also more focused and less stressful time with their parents? The most obvious answer would be for parents to work fewer hours and to spend more time at home. Realistically, that isn't likely to happen.

What may be possible is for working parents to change the way that they spend time with their children. It is here that the often-poignant responses of the kids in the study may be most useful to parents, whether or not they work outside the home. Drawing largely on feedback from kids, Galinsky has culled two dozen suggestions for parents. Five of them struck me as especially powerful.

Pay more attention to family routines and rituals. Children consistently cite the regular events in their lives as being positive and memorable -- whether it's eating dinner together as a family, reading or storytelling at bedtime, sharing family songs and stories, or creating rituals for saying good-bye at the beginning of the day and reconnecting at day's end. "Routines make life predictable and understandable," writes Galinsky. "Traditions are treasured rituals that we carry from childhood into adulthood."

Create boundaries in your life. Galinsky suggests that parents keep work and family separate by introducing what she calls "transition rituals" into their lives. That might mean listening to specific music during the morning commute in order to let go of family issues and to shift gears into work, and doing the reverse on the way home.

Be there when it counts. Kids consistently ascribe special importance to having their parents around for what they see as key events in their lives: sports events, plays and concerts, parents' nights at school, days when they stay home from school because of illness. This is one area where a small investment of time seems to yield large rewards. It's also in the best interest of employers to provide this sort of flexibility. Parents who are given the opportunity to be present at key moments in their kids' lives are likely to be less distracted and more productive when they're working.

Talk more about your work life. Most parents, the study found, say very little about their work to their kids, and often what they do say is negative. The result is another parent-child disconnect. Nearly 70% of mothers reported liking work "a lot," for example, but only 42% of kids have that impression of their parents' attitude toward work. Parents also tend to talk as if money were their primary reason for working, to the exclusion of describing other satisfactions that they derive from their job. "When we don't share our feelings about work constructively," Galinsky argues, "we are missing a chance to help frame our children's views about their own work in the future."

Find out how your kids are feeling, even if they seem to resist telling you. "What we found in talking to teenagers is that they feel conflicted," says Galinsky. "If they ask their parents for help explicitly, that makes them feel little again. Nonetheless, they do have issues that they want to be able to discuss with their parents. They may try to push you away, but they also appreciate it when you hang in there with them."

My 18-year-old recently went off to college, so I haven't had many opportunities to try Galinsky's ideas with her. But after reading "Ask the Children" -- and despite misgivings about the answers I might get -- I started asking my 14-year-old a series of questions about how she felt I was doing as a father. One thing I learned is that I don't tell her much about my work. Another is that she rated my parenting skills higher than I did. But the most powerful thing Emily told me is that she feels that we don't spend enough time together. Hearing that did nearly break my heart -- and it fueled my resolve.

I've begun setting aside specific times to be with her -- including several hours yesterday afternoon when I should have been writing this column. (I decided that it was more important to walk my talk.) We've also established the ritual of Monday-night dinner -- just the two of us. Last week, as we were leaving a restaurant, I asked Emily whether she felt that we were spending more time together. It was a shamelessly leading question, but I still took exquisite pleasure in her answer.

"Yeah, Dad," she said. "And I really like it."

Tony Schwartz (tschwartz@fastcompany.com) is working on a new book, "What I've Learned So Far: Americans Talk about Life's Most Important Lessons." Contact Ellen Galinsky by email (egalinsky@familiesandwork.org), or learn more about the families and work institute on the Web (www.familiesandwork.org).

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