What working parent hasn’t felt guilty about missing soccer games and piano recitals? Almost two decades ago, though, researchers surveyed nearly 900 professionals about their relationships with their work and their children, and found that parents’ working, even for long hours, did not hurt children. What they did find was that parents who were distracted by, or obsessed with, their work, did see an impact on their children. This is likely only more problematic today when digital devices are omnipresent. The lesson: don’t worry about whether you attend every soccer game. But when you do show up, put your phone down and be there for your kid.
But how does our work affect our children’s lives? About two decades ago, in a study that surveyed approximately 900 business professionals ranging from 25 to 63 years old, across an array of industries, Drexel University’s Jeff Greenhaus and I explored the relationship between work and family life and described how these two aspects of life are both allies and enemies. In light of the deservedly increased attention we’re now paying to mental health problems in our society, it’s worth taking a fresh look at some of our findings on how the emotional lives of children — the unseen stakeholders at work — are affected by their parents’ careers. Our findings help explain what’s been observed since our original research about how children are negatively affected by their parents being digitally distracted, also known as “technoference,” and by the harmful effects of stress at work on family life.
Most of the research on the impact of parental employment on children looks at whether or not mothers work (but not, until very recently, fathers); whether parents work full- or part-time; the amount of time parents spend at work; and the timing of parental employment in the span of children’s lives. Our research went beyond matters of time, however, and looked, in addition, at the inner experience of work: parental values about the importance of career and family, the psychological interference of work on family life (that is, we are thinking about work when we are physically present at home with our family), the extent of emotional involvement in career, and discretion and control about the conditions of work.
All these aspects of parents’ careers, we found, correlate with the degree to which children display behavior problems, which are key indicators of their mental health. We measured them with the Child Behavior Checklist, a standard in the child development research literature that has not been used in other research in organizational psychology. Unfortunately, to date, the specific effects of parents’ work experiences (not time spent at work) on children’s mental health has still not been a priority for research in this field. It should be, for this is yet another means by which work can have important health consequences. Here are some of the highlights of what we observed.
For both mothers and fathers, we found that children’s emotional health was higher when parents believed that family should come first, regardless of the amount of time they spent working. We also found children were better off when parents cared about work as a source of challenge, creativity, and enjoyment, again, without regard to the time spent. And, not surprisingly, we saw that children were better off when parents were able to be physically available to them.
Children were more likely to show behavioral problems if their fathers were overly involved psychologically in their careers, whether or not they worked long hours. And a father’s cognitive interference of work on family and relaxation time — that is, a father’s psychological availability, or presence, which is noticeably absent when he is on his digital device — was also linked with children having emotional and behavioral problems. On the other hand, to the extent that a father was performing well in and feeling satisfied with his job, his children were likely to demonstrate relatively few behavior problems, again, independent of how long he was working.
For mothers, on the other hand, having authority and discretion at work was associated with mentally healthier children. That is, we found that children benefit if their mothers have control over what happens to them when they are working. Further, mothers spending time on themselves — on relaxation and self-care — and not so much on housework, was associated with positive outcomes for children. It’s not just a matter of mothers being at home versus at work, it’s what they do when they’re at home with their non-work time. If mothers were not with their children so they could take care of themselves, there was no ill effect on their children. But to the extent that mothers were engaged in housework, children were more likely to be beset by behavior problems.
Traditional roles for fathers and mothers are surely changing since we conducted this research. But it’s still the case that women carry more of the psychological burden of parental responsibilities. Our research showed that taking time to care for themselves instead of on the additional labor of housework strengthens mothers’ capacities to care their children. And fathers are better able to provide healthy experiences for their children when they are psychologically present with them and when their sense of competence and their well-being are enhanced by their work.
The good news in this research is that these features of a parent’s working life are, at least to some degree, under their control and can be changed. We were surprised to see in our study that parents’ time spent working and on child care — variables often much harder to do anything about, in light of economic and industry conditions — did not influence children’s mental health. So, if we care about how our careers are affecting our children’s mental health, we can and should focus on the value we place on our careers and experiment with creative ways to be available, physically and psychologically, to our children, though not necessarily in more hours with them. Quality time is real.