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From Barnes & NobleSettling 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.