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Society, Politics & Law

Work-Life Balance

Updated Thursday, 1st December 2005

Ronny Flynn considers what children think of their parent's work-life balance

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Two parents with their child. Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the main pattern of two-parent family employment is to have 1.5 earners. There is usually a father who works full time, and a mother who works part-time. More women with children have entered the workforce. The greatest increase in the last 10 years has been in the number of women with children under five.

The current government has pledged to end child poverty. One of its strategies for doing this is to get more families, especially mothers, into paid employment. To enable this, a large number of ‘family-friendly’ policies have been introduced, including flexible working rights, tax benefits and free or subsidised child care. More attention is also being paid to the role of fathers in parenting and family life.

Questions like ‘Should mothers work outside the home?’ are now not often asked. Mothers’ employment is and always has been important, but for many years mothers were made to feel guilty if they worked outside the home. For many families, a mother's income was, and still is, the only source of income. The discussion has moved on though, to how it’s possible to better combine paid work and family life. Having choices about how they work, when they work and how to get the quality of life they want for themselves and their children have become important questions for parents to consider.

One way of helping this along is for parents to find out what their children think. A number of research studies are now looking more closely at the way parents’ patterns of employment and work affect family life. Many of these studies are summarised in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation publication mentioned at the end. This article features two studies that concentrate on children’s views. One is a UK study, one from the United States of America. Another UK study of mothers’ and fathers’ views of the impact of mothers’ employment on family relationships very much backs up what the children said (Reynolds and colleagues, 2003).

So what do children want?

Professor Julia Brannen and her colleagues asked young people aged 10-12 in England about many aspects of family life, including the hours parents worked. The children in this study wanted parents to be ‘there’ for them; to provide care, help and emotional support. They wanted parents to spend time with them and to not work too hard.

These findings are backed up by those from surveys, interviews and focus groups carried out in the USA by Ellen Galinsky from the Families and Work Institute in New York. Galinsky consulted thousands of children and working parents across the USA. She covered children of different ages and ethnic groups so can be confident that her findings reflect commonly held views.

Below, are the main messages from the children’s survey, together with comments on what this might mean for parents. Think about the questions that follow, and how you might improve your work-life balance.

The messages from children

Work if you want to work - kids will turn out the same either way.
The children are not making judgements about whether or not mothers should work. They are seeing it as OK with them if this is what parents’ want. They also support the research evidence that there is no direct ‘cause and effect’ link to be found between mothers working and the way children turn out. It’s more complicated than that. It’s how stressed working makes parents, how this affects the family and how they manage this that is more important. Do you feel guilty for working because you are a mother? If you are not in employment, do you want to be? It’s living with these tensions that can make it hard for families.

Don’t take stresses at work into the home.
This was the biggest wish given by over a third of the sample in Galinsky’s study. The children wanted their parents to be less stressed when they were with them, and this was worth more to them than the amount of time they had with parents. Quality rather than quantity matters. Think about your own situation. How often do you turn down requests from children because you ‘haven’t got time’? How often do you bring work problems home that get in the way of parenting? Can you ‘switch off’ from work when you are at home?

We are proud of you.
Teach your children how to work and do something they enjoy. Children seem to value the increased self-esteem and status that work can bring for parents, and they learn from it. In what ways can you say your children are proud of you? Do they know enough about your work and if you enjoy it? Why not ask them?

Love us, raise us well, even when we are difficult.
Talk to your kids even if they act like they don’t want you to. The children are here acknowledging that parenting may not always be easy, but that they would like to know they are loved unconditionally, no matter what. They are asking that parents keep the channels of communication open, and that they really do want to be talked to even if they don’t always show it. It can be tempting to believe that television, computer games and being with other children can replace adult company. But these children are saying they cannot. How do you show your children you love them? If they are difficult, is their behaviour soon forgiven, or does your disapproval last for ages?

Discipline but don’t be harsh or judgemental.
The children are asking for clear limits to be set, and recognising that their behaviour may need to be kept in order. But they may have picked up that adults often treat children with less respect than they would other adults. Do you treat your children more harshly than you do adults? Do you take your own frustrations out on them when the problem is really with yourself?

Keep your promises.
Children by and large learn their basic values from parents and other close adults. We can’t expect children to behave in a way we don’t do ourselves, and being reliable and consistent is important. Children need to be able to trust their parents in order to be able to trust other people. When time is short, it can be tempting to make promises that then get overruled by work demands. Children need to know they are important too.

Keep on working and supporting your children.
Children don’t see the two things as incompatible; they want parents to do both. But you may need to talk with them about the best way to do this.

Spend ‘focused’ and ‘hang around’ time with us – the more time you spend, the better.
Find out what’s going on in your kid’s lives. Children are acknowledging that you are busy and have limited time to spend with them. But these children wanted their parents to spend time with them without being distracted, where children could raise problems as they arise, and where issues could ‘emerge at their own pace, not to schedule’. Just ‘being there’ is important, and it is your emotional availability that matters, not necessarily how much time in hours you spend with them. Sometimes walk with them to school or to the shops, prepare and eat food together; go to a playground or park with them. A third of the children thought their parents knew what was going on in their lives. That means two thirds of them thought their parents did not know enough. Could you know more?

Put your family first. Be there for your children – or else. Take care of your kids – one day they may take care of you.
These final messages are a reminder of what we might lose if we need to change our work-life balance, and don’t listen to our children in time. We might put the relationships we care about most in some danger. Taking a little time out to think about what these children have said can be all that’s needed to change patterns of behaviour that may have become ‘stuck’. Try it!

Women still do more than their fair share of housework and child care in two-parent heterosexual families, which means that stresses of paid work come on top of everything else. Family-friendly policies at work cannot help if there are unequal relationships at home. These messages are equally addressed to fathers and mothers. In fact, Galinsky’s children badly wanted to spend more time with their fathers. Finally, having the support of family and friends, with adults around who were ‘like an auntie’ to them for example, were much appreciated by children and made life much easier for the mothers in the study.

Two parents with their child. Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

References and further reading

Brannen, J., Heptinstall, E. and Bhopal, K. (2000) Connecting Children: Care and Family Life in Later Childhood. London: Routlrdge/Falmer

Galinsky, E. (1999) Ask the Children: What America’s Children Really Think About Working Parents. New York: William Morrow and Company.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2003) Families and work in the twenty-first century. JRF Foundations number 923

Reynolds, T., Callender, C. and Edwards, R. (2003) The impact of mothers’ employment on family relationships. JRF Findings number 773.








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