More On: children
Not working long hours hurts your kids. When you're busy with work when you're with them, that's when it hurts them the most.
Whoever has to work has probably felt bad about missing soccer games and piano recitals. When your work schedule changes at the last minute or you have to go to a client site, it's normal to worry that you're scarring your child for life.
But how does what we do affect the lives of our children? About 20 years ago, Drexel University's Jeff Greenhaus and I looked at the relationship between work and family life in a study that surveyed about 900 business professionals between the ages of 25 and 63 from a variety of industries. We found that work and family life are both friends and foes. Now that we're paying more attention to mental health problems in our society, which is a good thing, it's worth taking a fresh look at some of our findings about how their parents' jobs affect their emotional lives. Children are the unseen stakeholders at work. Our findings help explain what has been seen since our original research about how "technoference," or parents being distracted by their phones or computers, hurts their kids and how stress at work hurts family life.
Most research on the effects of parental work on children looks at whether or not mothers work (until very recently, fathers weren't included), whether parents work full-time or part-time, how much time they spend at work, and when they start and stop working during their children's lives. But our research went beyond questions of time and also looked at the inner experience of work. We looked at how parents felt about the importance of career and family, how work affected family life (for example, if we were thinking about work when we were at home with our family), how emotionally invested we were in our careers, and how much choice and control we had over the conditions of work.
We found that all of these things about parents' jobs are related to how much their children have behavior problems, which are key signs of their mental health. We used the Child Behavior Checklist to measure them. This is a standard in the field of child development research that hasn't been used in organizational psychology research before. Unfortunately, research in this field has not yet focused on the specific effects of parents' work experiences (not time spent at work) on their children's mental health. It should be, because this is another way that work can have serious effects on health. Here are some of the most interesting things we saw.
We found that children's emotional health was better when both mothers and fathers believed that family should come first, no matter how much time they spent at work. We also found that children did better when their parents saw work as a source of challenge, creativity, and fun, regardless of how long it took. And it wasn't a surprise to find that children did better when their parents could be there in person.
Children were more likely to act out if their fathers were too emotionally invested in their jobs, regardless of how many hours they worked. And emotional and behavioral problems in children were linked to a father's work getting in the way of his family and leisure time. This is because a father's psychological availability or presence is missing when he is on his digital device. On the other hand, no matter how long a father worked, his kids were less likely to act up if he was good at his job and happy with it.
On the other hand, when it came to mothers, having authority and freedom at work was linked to children who were mentally healthier. That is, we found that it is better for children if their mothers can decide what happens to them while they are at work. Also, children did better when their mothers spent more time on themselves, like relaxing and taking care of themselves, and less time on housework. It's not just about whether mothers are at home or at work; it's also about what they do when they're not working. If moms left their kids alone so they could take care of themselves, it didn't hurt the kids in any way. But the more housework mothers did, the more likely it was that their children had behavior problems.
Since we did this research, there is no doubt that the traditional roles of fathers and mothers have changed. But it's still true that women carry more of the emotional weight of being a parent than men do. Our research showed that mothers are better able to take care of their children when they take time for themselves instead of doing more work around the house. And fathers are better able to give their kids healthy experiences when they are emotionally present with them and when their work improves their sense of competence and well-being.
The good news from this study is that these parts of a parent's work life are, at least in part, up to them and can be changed. We were surprised to find in our study that the time parents spent working and on child care did not affect their children's mental health. These are things that are often hard to change because of how the economy and industry works. So, if we care about how our jobs affect our kids' mental health, we can and should think about how important our jobs are to us and try out new ways to be physically and mentally available to our kids, even if it doesn't mean spending more time with them. Time well spent is real.