Kids are naturally interested in what their parents do all day. Conversations about work can be a great opportunity to grow closer and share your values.
Unfortunately, these conversations are hard to do well. “The biggest mistake I see people make is giving their kids the fundamental belief that work is a huge burden,” says Deborah Gilboa, a physician and parenting expert who runs the Ask Doctor G website. “They wish they didn’t have to go, of course they don’t like it, or even more, that nobody likes it.”
The problem with that is, “I would like all of my kids to be employed as adults. I think most of us would,” she says. If you want your children to view work as “filled with choices and chances to do something really good,” here are four phrases to avoid.
If your kid is whining about spending time away from you, it’s tempting to say you “have” to work, or that somebody has to keep a roof over your heads. But the truth is, “it’s always a choice,” Gilboa says. No matter what your finances, you could probably figure something out. More importantly, you don’t want to teach your children that you are a victim, and that they will have no say or control over their adult lives.
So when you talk with your kids, explain the multitude of reasons you work. “Some of it is about the money, and that is totally reasonable to point out to our kids,” she says. You work so you can afford some of the activities they enjoy. Chances are you like some parts of your job as well. You can tell the kids that you enjoy spending time with them and you enjoy what you do for a living. The two need not be pitted against each other. Finally, you can tell your children that “going to work is how adults make the world a better place,” says Gilboa. Granted, not everyone is a firefighter or teacher or some other profession where the connection is obvious. But all jobs have some meaning. If you work in customer service, you could explain to the children that “I got the opportunity to interact with 167 people today, and I treated each of them respectfully.”
It’s okay if you don’t like your job. “My kids will likely be in a situation in their lives of having a job they don’t like,” says Gilboa. The key is to make sure they know what you’re doing to improve the situation. Sharing struggles is how you teach kids resilience, and work struggles are much better to share with kids than, say, marital woes.
“Work is a great place because it’s not threatening to the family unit, but kids get to see that everybody has struggles, challenges, frustrations, boredom, and failures,” she says. Do you intend to talk with your boss about your workload? How are you navigating your relationships with colleagues? Are you taking a night class that will help you move to a different position, or are you applying for different jobs? All of these are great ways to discuss how you’re navigating a not-so-perfect situation while giving your kids confidence that they can do so, too.
Gossiping about colleagues is a bad idea for two reasons. First, “Nothing is off the record with our kids,” says Gilboa. They have no filters, and it is quite likely that your kid will meet your colleague at some point and announce, “Oh, this is the person you said smells so bad!” Second, “We’re modeling for them the kinds of relationships we want them to have.” They don’t have to like everyone, but there’s nothing gained by being gratuitously mean at the office, or at middle school.
There is nothing wrong with taking a break when you need one. You should model healthy boundaries with your children. But making excuses or being dishonest to avoid conflict or doing something you don’t want to do sends a bad message. “Don’t model a bad work ethic for your kids and then turn around and want them to have a good one,” says Gilboa. Next thing you know, your kid will be suggesting that she’ll just tell the teacher her computer crashed so she couldn’t do her homework. And you’ll know exactly who to blame.