Recent Australian and American research sheds new light on the work and parenting debates. Two recent studies discussed at the Family and Work: Listening to our Children conference in both continents asked children their views on their parents’ working lives. The responses were illuminating rather than frightening.
Ellen Galinsky, co-founder of the New York–based Families and Work Institute, conducted a five-year study on work and parenting gaining children’s perspectives. Her findings reported in the landmark book Ask the Children paint a clear picture of what children think about their parents working and what they want from them. Galinsky claims that children don’t mind if both their parents work but they must make them (the children) number one priority. Galinsky believes the best parenting is intentional and when parents make their children their number one priority they will generally succeed as parents.
According to Galinsky, the key to success as a working parent is knowing what is going on in the lives of children and young people. Gaining this knowledge comes from spending time with kids, in their school and from knowing their friends.
Children and young people value the every day encounters they have with parents, above all else. It is the chats with parents over the kitchen table, the lively conversations they may have in a bedroom, bathroom or living room and rituals such as bed-time reading that mean most to kids. Galinsky urges parents not to think in terms of quality and quantity time but in terms of ‘focused time’ and ‘hang-around time’. The former refers to time we spend purposefully with kids such as hearing them read, while the latter refers to just being there with kids so that natural interaction occurs.
Research by Australian Institute of Family Studies fellow Virginia Lewis supported this view of family time. Lewis found that many children of working parents wanted to play more and interact informally with their parents. They didn’t mind if their parents worked reasonably long hours but they resented it if their parents came home stressed or grumpy. It seems that many parents need a wind-down time so they can switch from work mode to parent mode.
Lewis also found that adolescents gained in confidence from not having parents around as they were given very real responsibilities. This group still wanted their parents to be visible, but not involved in the minutiae of their lives.
Galinsky identifies four components in the workplace that impact on parenting and therefore the ability to raise well-adjusted kids. Job demands, the ability of a parent to focus at work, the amount of control over their work and the degree of support they receive as parents and people impact on their ability to parent. These variables not only influence parenting but organisational loyalty, job satisfaction and workplace retention. When work and family are in synergy, and their routines match then parents are able to successfully navigate the demands of work and parenting to the benefit of both employers and children.