Ask the Childrenby Ellen Galinsky
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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Read an Excerpt
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)...
What People are saying about this
(James A. Levine, Ed.D., author of Working Fathers: New Strategies for Balancing Work and Family)
(Gene Andrews, Ph.D., former GE human resources executive)
(Chris Kjeldsen, vice president, Community and Workplace Programs, Johnson & Johnson)
(Stew D. Friedman, Ph.D., Wharton Work/Life Integration Project and Ford Motor Company)
(Rosalind C. Barnett, Ph.D., senior scientist, Women's Studies Program, Brandeis University)
(Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., author of The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience; medical director, UCLA, Infant and Preschool Service; associate clinical professor, UCLA School of Medicine)
(Arlene Skolnick, Ph.D., research psychologist, Institute of Human Development, University of California, Berkeley)
(Faye Crosby, Ph.D., author of Juggling; professor of psychology, University of California, Santa Cruz)
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Ask Children but Don’t Rely on Their Answers It’s usually beneficial to ask children (I’ll expand on this later), but don’t do what Galinsky does in this book and rely on their answers. That’s because answers to questions—as documented by extensive research—are skewed and made unreliable by all four components of the asking method: respondents, asking instruments, situations or environments in which questions are asked and answers given, and by askers themselves. Galinsky acknowledges (unintentionally, I presume) the unreliability of answers when she describes numerous and significant “discrepancies” in answers of children and parents concerning time spent together in certain activities and in other instances (pp. 58-83). She also admits that parents tend to answer questions in “a socially desirable way” (p. 58) and that means their answers may not be accurate; moreover, parents, most likely more so than children, “exaggerate” (p. 76). To be sure, not every answer to every question is incorrect; thus, there may be some correct information in this book. But when all you have are answers, you can’t distinguish between accurate answers and answers skewed by a sense of what’s socially desirable; between accurate answers and exaggerated answers; you can’t determine which of the discrepancies reported by children and parents are accurate which are inaccurate. The only way to know if answers are correct or accurate is to check or verify them with information from observation, experiments, or other non-asking sources. Galinsky does not check her answers with information from non-asking sources; all she has is unreliable information. As mentioned above, it’s usually beneficial to ask children because children (as is true for parents and everyone else) like to express themselves. Those who’ve had their say (in this case, children) feel better; perceive to a greater extent than those who’ve not been asked and haven’t expressed themselves, that askers have interest in, or are concerned about, them and, thus, they’re more willing to participate and provide desired answers which, of course, benefits askers (in this case, Galinsky). Two other characteristics of this book are worth mentioning. First, the title is deceptive. Ask the Children is mostly about parents: what parents say, how they could be better parents, and so on. Second, although Galinsky only has answers to questions, only has what children and parents say they do and think, she drops “say they” (or “stated”, “report”, or some such), in an effort to convince us she’s telling us what they actually do and think. She writes, for example: “a book about how kids see their working parents” (p. xiii) rather than: a book about how kids say they see their working parents. On the next page she writes: “the views of parents and children” rather than: the stated, or reported, views of parents and children. Galinsky and all other askers have good reason to drop “say they”. If they inserted in their written and spoken texts, “say they”, or the like, every time they reported respondents’ answers, readers and listeners would correctly conclude that askers are only writing and talking about what people say, and everyone knows that what people say often does not correspond to what they actually do or think or (probably less often) who they actually are.