What We Learn When We Ask the Children:

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A National Conversation about Parenting, Work, and Family Life

Discussion of work and family issues often centers on the question of whether parents' employment-usually that of the mother-harms children. The debate often focuses on how much time parents can work outside of the home and still be effective and responsible parents.
In her recent book, Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think about Working Parents, Ellen Galinsky suggests a new way to consider the work and family paradigm. The notion of "balancing" work and family life, Galinsky says, implies an either/or situation. If one side of the work/family scale is up, the other side is down. What is more typical, Galinsky reports, is when work life is "up," family life is likely to be "up" as well (Galinsky, 1999, pp. xiv - xvi). "Navigating work and family life"-as opposed to balancing or juggling work and family life-more accurately describes the dynamic interrelationship between work and family, one in which the positive or negative aspects of one can spill over and either enhance or weaken the other (Galinsky, 1999, pp. 16-17).

Galinsky's views come from years of research on work and family life from the perspective of adults and, most recently, from the perspective of children. Her recent work includes interviews with 1,023 children from 8 through 18 years of age and 605 employed parents with children from birth through age 18. The nationally representative group of children in the study lived in two-earner families, single-parent employed families, unemployed-parent families, and traditional families. Highlights from this national conversation with children follow.

Working mothers are neither good nor bad for children. Rather how children are parented makes the difference.

Children were asked to assess their parents on eight important parenting skills associated with children's healthy development, school readiness, and academic success. These essential parenting skills included (1) making the child feel important and loved; (2) responding to the child's cues and clues; (3) accepting the child for who he or she is, but also expecting success; (4) promoting strong values; (5) using constructive discipline; (6) providing routines and rituals; (7) being involved in the child's education; and (8) being there for the child (Galinsky, 1999, Chapter 2). The study found no differences in children's assessments of their parents between those with mothers who were employed and those with mothers who were at home (p. 49). "What matters," says Galinsky, "is how children are being parented-what values the parents have, whether the parents follow what they preach, how parents connect to their children, and whether their children are priorities in the parents' lives" (Galinsky, 2000, p. 64).

Children need focused times and hang-around times with their parents.

Galinsky finds that the amount of time children reported spending with their mothers and fathers mattered, as did the content and quality of the time together. Parents who spent more time with their children engaging in daily routines and other activities, such as eating a meal together, doing homework together, watching TV together, or playing a game or exercising together, were viewed more positively by their children. The time spent engaged in these activities is what Galinsky refers to as hang-around time. Galinsky suggests that children are also very attuned to how much time their parents spend focused on them in the time they spend together and how rushed that time is. Children view their parents' parenting skills more positively when they spend more time with their parents on both workdays and nonworkdays, and when the time together is focused and calm. The debate about whether it's the quality of the time or the quantity of the time with children that matters is misguided, according to Galinsky. Children and parents report feeling connected when they have focused times and hang-around times together (Galinsky, 1999, Chapter 3; Galinsky, 2000, p. 66).

Parents' work affects how they parent.

Jobs can either deplete parents' energy for parenting or give them more energy for parenting. Galinsky identifies four workplace factors that can contribute to parents' feelings of success or stress at work:

* Job demands: sufficiency of time to spend with children, amount of overnight travel responsibilities, amount of work taken home, and number of days/hours worked each week.
* Focus: degree of "multitasking" one's job requires, number and types of interruptions at work that make it difficult to focus.
* Job quality: aspects of one's job that make it meaningful and challenging.
* Support at work: extent to which one's supervisors, co-workers, and workplace "culture" support putting family needs ahead of one's job.

There is a cyclic relationship between the quality of a parent's experience in her work environment and her mood at home. Parents with good working environments come home in better moods and with more energy for parenting. These same parents in turn have more energy to invest in work. Simply put, happy parents make productive employees, and vice versa (Galinsky, 1999, Chapter 6). Thirty-six percent of children said that because of work their mothers were not in a good mood with them at least some of the time, 13% often or very often. Thirty-one percent of the children said that their fathers were not in a good mood with them because of work at least some of the time, 11% often or very often (p. 189).

Children formulate opinions about their parents' work experience regardless of parents' discussions about their work.

Parents teach their children about their work life whether or not they intend to do so, but some of the messages the children receive may not be accurate ones, according to Galinsky (1999). For example, 41% of the children in Galinsky's study responded that their parents like their work a lot, but 60%of the fathers and 69% of the mothers indicated that they like their work a lot (p. 232).

Children learn about the many reasons why people work from observations of their parents. In Galinsky's study, only 12% of the children said that the one best thing about their mothers' or fathers' work is that it helps people, while 60% of the children said that the one best thing about their parents' job is that it brings the family more money (Galinsky, 1999, p. 235). Sixty-six percent of the children said they know a lot about their mothers' work, and 54% said they know a lot about their fathers' work. Thirty-nine percent of children heard good things about their parents' work often or very often, and 27% said they heard bad things about their parents' work often or very often. Children learn more about work (both good and bad) from their mothers than from their fathers (p. 244). When asked if parents put their jobs before their family, 80% of the children said rarely or never, 12% said sometimes, and only 8% said often or very often (p. 248). Galinksy notes that children were more likely to say that their fathers rather than their mothers put their jobs first.

Children also worry about the impact of work on their parents, says Galinsky. Many children worry that their parents are very stressed by work (25.5%). Others worry because their parents are very tired (11%). In general, children feel more positively about working parents when their parents are seen as liking their jobs and when they share stories about good things that happen at work. Children also feel more positively about the fact that their parents work when they feel that their parents "are there" for them and that they come first in their parents' lives (Galinsky, 1999, p. 274).

In their one-to-one interviews, Galinsky and her colleagues asked, "What would you like to tell the working parents of America?" The responses of the 1,023 children were particularly revealing, perhaps because they could speak more frankly when discussing other working families than when discussing their own. Children offered the following 10 messages to working parents in America (Galinsky, 1999, Chapter 11):

1. Work if you want to work.
2. We are proud of you.
3. Love us and raise us well.
4. Keep on working and supporting your children.
5. Spend focused and hang-around time with your children.
6. Put your family first.
7. Be there for your children.
8. Don't bring the stress from work into the home.
9. Find out what is going on in your children's lives and tell them about yours.
10. Teach your children how to work.

For more information

Working parents' survival guide

Working parents can raise smart kids: The "time-starved" parent's guide to helping your child succeed in school.

The home-school connection: Guidelines for working parents


Galinsky, Ellen. (1999). Ask the children: What America's children really think about working parents. New York: William Morrow.

Galinsky, Ellen. (2000). Findings from Ask the Children with implications for early childhood professionals. Young Children, 55(3), 64-68.
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