Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think about Working Parents


Ellen Galinsky is the President and Co-Founder of Families and Work Institute, a Manhattan-based non-profit organization conducting research on the changing family, workplace and community. Since its inception in 1989, Families and Work Institute's pioneering studies consistently generate national headlines. Two of the latest she has co-authored are The 1997 National Study of the Changing Workforce, a nationally representative study of the U.S. workforce updated every five years, and The 1998 Business Work-Life ...
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Ellen Galinsky is the President and Co-Founder of Families and Work Institute, a Manhattan-based non-profit organization conducting research on the changing family, workplace and community. Since its inception in 1989, Families and Work Institute's pioneering studies consistently generate national headlines. Two of the latest she has co-authored are The 1997 National Study of the Changing Workforce, a nationally representative study of the U.S. workforce updated every five years, and The 1998 Business Work-Life Study, revealing the trends and prevalence of business initiatives that support the family and personal life of employees. As a leading authority on work-family issues and popular keynote speaker, she was a presenter at the 1998 White House Conference on Child Care and appears regularly on television and in the media. She is the program director of the annual work-life conference co-convened by The Conference Board and Families and Work Institute and staffs The Conference Board's Work-Life Leadership Council and The Employer Group, an association of employers committed to the work-life issues of hourly, low-wage and entry-level employees. A past President of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, she serves on many boards, commissions and task forces. Her work with numerous companies and governments extends globally. For twenty-five years she was on the faculty at the Bank Street College of Education, where she helped establish the field of work and family life. The author of over twenty books and reports (including The Six Stages of Parenthood and The Preschool Years, co-authored with Judy David), she has published more than 85 articles in academic journals, academic books, and magazines. Her newest book, Ask the Children, to be released this September, is a landmark investigation of how America's children feel about their working parents. She lives with her family in upstate New York.
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Editorial Reviews

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Settling the Debate?

For the past 30 years, parents, childcare experts, and especially television talk show hosts have continued to debate about exactly what effect having two working parents has on children. Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, decided that it was high time to ask the kids themselves. In writing and researching Ask the Children, Galinsky wondered whether it might be possible to reframe the debate. Perhaps asking children about their own working parents and family lives would help push the discussion out of its multiple-year rut.

Ask the Children is the result of a wide-ranging study that breaks down and completely reconstitutes the whole discussion of work and family. Since the arguments are both compelling and simple, you might find yourself slapping your own forehead and asking, "Why didn't I think of that?" Galinsky redefines all of the terminology and indicators used in the old debate and challenges us to rethink such issues as quality time versus quantity of time, how mothers and fathers parent their children differently, how much children really know about the economic status of the family, and what messages we're sending children about work and stress.

Based on her interviews with a representative group of more than 1,000 children from the third to the 12th grades, the author found that having a working mother is neither "good" nor "bad." The factors that make a mother -- whether she works or stays at home -- "good" or "bad" are myriad. Galinsky found that having a working mother is "never once predictive of how children assess their mothers' parenting skills." Kids are much more affected by the way that their mothers and fathers work; it's how they work that matters.

When parents were asked what they think their children would most like to change about their family life, the majority assumed that their kids would choose to spend more time with them. But when the children in the survey were asked the same question, a large portion of them didn't feel that they needed more time with their parents; instead they wished that they had more money. From the children's point of view, more money would mean less-stressed parents, not, as you might imagine, more Nintendo games and Barbie dolls. Galinsky states that we need to stop thinking of work and family as a balancing act; trying to "balance" these things only causes stress, which doesn't allow us to optimize the time that we spend with our children. "There is a flow between work and home, a dynamic interrelationship in which positive -- or negative -- aspects of one area spill over, enhancing or impairing the other."

An implicit understanding in the working parent debate is that work and family are two separate worlds that do not overlap. Based on the interviews and questionnaires answered by children in this study, Galinsky found that there is nothing further from the truth. Children read the moods of their parents and from this get most of their information about their parents' work lives. Parents are reluctant to talk to their children about work, which means that children are receiving haphazard information from parents. Galinsky describes the balance between work and home life as a set of scales that most parents run themselves ragged trying to keep equalized. The scale doesn't need to be balanced, she says; the quality of your family life will inevitably be up when your work scale is also tipped up, and your job will be better if you don't have to bring the stresses of family life to your workplace. Time and again, the children in the study said that their parents get more angry, overreact, dole out discipline more harshly, and are less interested in their education and accomplishments when they have had a bad day at work. That behavior happens even more frequently when parents are out of work or are having financial difficulties.

This landmark study reveals some surprising new facts about the effects of work on our children and our family life in general. Galinsky makes a strong argument for ditching the entire working parent debate as we know it. The reality is that many parents do work. They often feel overextended, and they persistently harbor guilty feelings about how their work is affecting their children. The time has come, in this interminable debate, to look for solutions. Ask the Children offers a new framework for the discussion alsong with practical suggestions to help us understand and tackle the difficulties that come along with work and family. The so-called balance between work and family is beginning to appear a little more manageable.

Library Journal
This detailed and well-organized report is based on extensive interviews with children about how their parents navigate the responsibilities of home and work. Galinsky, the president and cofounder of Families and Work Institute and the author of The Six Stages of Parenthood, makes her rigorous scholarship accessible with succinct, vivid writing. The authors conclude that children are no less happy or healthy when both parents work but do suffer from stressful workplaces and unreliable shedules. One example of the original, compassionate, and realistic recommendations is to share with children what is enjoyable about work as much as its difficultis. The conclusions and recommendations are original, compassionate, and realistic. This is an important addition to the intense, ongoing cultural conversation, joining Arlie Hochschild's The Time Bind (LJ 5/1/97) and Toby L. Parcel and Elizabeth G. Menaghan's Parents' Jobs and Children's Lives (Aldine de Gruyter, 1994). Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.--Paula Dempsey, DePaul Univ. Lib., Chicago Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780756759223
  • Publisher: DIANE Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 7/1/1999
  • Pages: 391

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Reframing the Debate About

Working and Children

Why have we never asked children how they feel about working parents? Yes, they tell us, of course, from time to time, whether we want to hear from them or not. But why is it that whenever I mention that we are studying children's views of their employed parents, parents inevitably respond, I wonder what my children would say?" They wonder because they have never asked.

Why has a book like this one never been written, a comprehensive study like the one I have conducted never been done? After all, increasingly dual-earner families have become the norm. In all this time, have we not wanted to know what our children think?

The parents who first wonder what their children would say just as inevitably stop short and add, "I don't know if I want to know." "I would feel too guilty." "My child might say awful things about me." And for many mothers: "My child might tell me to stop working-to stay home."

Yet there is curiosity: "Don't tell me about what my own children say, but do tell me about what other people's children think."

Although many of us probably have not asked our own children, we are ready to listen. Over the years that I have worked on issues of work and family life, I have seen an evolution in our interest in understanding social change. At different times, there is a "societal readiness" to take on certain issues. I believe that we are ready to listen because it is finally the right time. More important, we are ready to listen because we really do need to know.

Recently, the Families and Work Institute cohosted a meeting ofbusiness leaders at which a neuroscientist presented an overview of what we know about the brain development of young children. He showed slides revealing that the brain of the child is wired by experience, both positive and negative. There were several other presentations, and then a strong discussion among the business leaders present. As the meeting was wrapping up, the moderator asked the audience, "What should the business community do in response to this information about the brain development of young children?" The room stilled; the heated discussion of moments before seemed frozen in time. Finally, Faith Wohl, president of the Child Care Action Campaign, broke the silence. "For the twenty years that I worked for a corporation," she began, "whenever the topic turned to the business community's responsibility for young children, we would say, 'That's the government's role.'Then I went to work for the federal government, and there we would say, 'It's the business community's role.' This subject is a hot potato, passed from unwilling player to unwilling player. And it is because we are still ambivalent about whether or not mothers should work."

Yet our feelings about whether or not mothers should work have changed over the past 30 years. They have changed because of what I think of as a national conversation about mothers' and fathers' roles in work and family life. Including children and their views of their working parents is the logical next step in this conversation.

Why do I call it a conversation? Essentially because the debate about the changing roles of women and men has taken place publicly. A controversial or tragic occurrence--a school shooting, a study, a book, a television show, a custody case, a trial-will arise that captures the public's attention because it presents a topic about which we are unsure or strongly divided. This topic will be widely discussed-at gatherings at work, around our kitchen tables, at parties with our friends and neighbors. One can almost chart the course of evolving public opinion by looking at these incidents.

Importantly, the conversation thus far has hinged on an either/or premise. I've found, however, that bringing both children and parents into the picture moves us beyond a black-and-white view.

The Ongoing Debate About Children

and Parental Employment

Is having a working mother good or bad for children? The debate in the 1960s centered on the question, Is having a working mother good or bad for children? It was first fueled by studies of children in orphanages showing that children separated from their mothers for long periods and raised in environmentally depressed conditions failed to thrive, even though they received adequate physical care.' Some social scientists and experts drew the conclusion that therefore mothers' working was bad for children. This opinion was countered by a number of researchers who said that the prolonged separation from mothers of children in an orphanage and the daily separations involved in child care could not be compared; therefore the jury was out on working mothers.

Between the 1960s and the late 1980s, a number of reviews of the research showed that there was little reason to be concerned about older children whose mothers worked. Although the public didn't necessarily agree, the public debate then shifted to infants. In 1988--perhaps not so coincidentally the very first year that a majority of mothers of infants were in the work force-Jay Belsky of Pennsylvania State University reported that a few studies indicated that infants whose mothers worked more than 20 hours a week in their child's first year of life were less likely to become securely attached to their mothers.' Since insecure attachments have been shown to lead to developmental problems in older children, and since some studies indicated that children with early experiences in child care are more aggressive, a public alarm was sounded.

Researchers immediately lined up on both sides of this issue on talk shows, and articles were published pro and con. Ultimately, the National Academy of Sciences convened a meeting bringing together what was informally called "the warring parties in the debate." This meeting led to a longitudinal study in the 1990s of approximately 1,300 children from ten communities by ten teams of researchers funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)...

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