My brother and I are incredibly different people. I always loved school; my brother just wanted it to be over. My highest level of education is a law degree, and my brother’s is a certificate in marine engine technology. I like working with words, and he likes working with his hands. I’m a prototypical Type A, and he’s much more go-with-the-flow.
But our work ethic is nearly identical. We believe in always giving two weeks’ notice, only calling in sick when it’s absolutely necessary, showing up on time, and going above and beyond. We were taught to dress for the job we want, not the job we have. We respect bosses and fellow employees alike. We’ve both known how to write a resume since we were teenagers, and how to go in and ask for a raise.
And I think the reason why is because, growing up, our parents talked about work at home—all the time.
As adults, there’s a certain type of fellow parent who’s easy to spot; We’ve all seen them, or even been them ourselves sometimes. The dad who’s busy taking a business call at the ballpark and misses his kid coming up to bat. The mom who misses the school play because she had to work late that night.
Sure, many of the most pernicious work-life balance issues that parents struggle with aren’t their fault and are largely beyond their control: stingy or nonexistent parental leave, few or no flexible hours, you name it. But to adapt, and to feel less guilty, we try to draw lines in the sand between work and home. No emails on weekends. No calls after hours.
But in an age where we’re encouraged not to “bring work home,” are we doing a disservice to the next generation? I believe there’s a fine line between being present when you’re with your children and compartmentalizing your work life and home life, to their future detriment.
Growing up, my parents worked in the same field, and the companies they worked for sometimes did business together. So there was always a lot for them to talk about, and I now know more about the printing industry than I’ll ever need to.
But what I did need to know was how to handle conflict with a fellow employee, the types of behaviors that don’t fly in the workplace, and what somebody might say in an interview that would lose them the job.
From my mom, I learned what it was like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry, and how to handle myself. I never worried about being the only woman when I worked in law or in sports, because my mom was the only woman in her department throughout much of my life, and it never seemed to matter to her–she found ways to adapt and succeed.
Those are all things I learned listening to my parents talk about work at home. Looking back, that upbringing didn’t just help me navigate the professional world, it’s also proved enormously useful to me as an entrepreneur.
But I wondered whether others who had similar experiences as kids felt the same way as adults. So I talked with a few people whose parents also discussed their working lives at home to learn what working parents should consider sharing with their kids as they get old enough to understand. Here’s what they said.
“My mom and dad were incredibly hard workers,” Amber Budd Peterson told me. Now the founder of a beauty atelier, Budd says, “They instilled in me things I considered ‘simple things’ at the time, but that I’m realizing more and more really aren’t simple for everyone.”
Some of the work habits we fall into intuitively aren’t so intuitive–especially the ones entrepreneurs rely on the most, when there isn’t a boss figure leering over your shoulder. You need to see those behaviors modeled as a kid in order to do them unthinkingly as an adult. Says Budd, “I show up early, I work hard, I don’t call in sick when I’m not sick, and I have respect for my leaders.”
“My dad worked in HR, and I have a very distinct memory of him talking to me about some of the tough decisions he had to make,” says Allie Horner, a leadership, business, and life coach.
“He often had to help people who were just learning how to manage their own teams, developing them as leaders. That really rubbed off on me, and I noticed when he was helping me develop my own decision-making skills.” That pushed Horner to think critically about choices she’d go on to help others make.
“He’d ask me questions to help me think about why I wanted what I wanted, and why I was doing what I was doing, rather than just telling me what he thought.”
“My mom discussed her weekly paycheck amount, her rent amount, and her car payment,” says Sarah Thompson. “I knew exactly what she paid for the three-family house she bought when I was 12, and how much she charged for the two apartments she rented out.”
Thompson says her mother’s openness about work and money led her to be more independent and improved her own financial health. She went on to earn her MBA, become an accountant, and work in corporate finance and accounting. But Thompson has since struck out on her own and now consults for marketing companies.
“What my dad drilled into us is that appearance matters, and people will judge you based on the way you look, dress, and how your treat people,” says Carine Warner, a business and life strategist. “Always look the part, look people in the eyes, and smile.”
“Growing up, says business consultant Vanessa Rende, “I watched my mom take on various business ventures, and part of that was watching her experience setbacks.” But she’s grateful her mother shared that with her. Looking back, Rende says it was “important that she let me see her experience the setbacks, because watching her handle them is what helped me develop my own entrepreneurial style of handling things.”
Rende sees it as something of an early, inadvertent apprenticeship to her current career. “Watching her manage her business and handle the daily challenges sometimes really created a great foundation for my mind-set that I’ve carried into my personal life and businesses.”