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If you ask what do you think your children would most like to change about the way your work affects their lives?

Do you think it’s the amount of time you spend with your children or what you actually do together that matters most to them?

Would you say that kids rate working or non-working mothers higher?

In a landmark study, Ellen Galinsky, Executive Editor of Work & Family Life and President of the Families and Work Institute, asked a nationally representative sample of 1000 children, ages 8 through 18, these and many other questions. Their answers are both surprising and reassuring, and were published in her book, Ask the Children (William Morrow).

Some of the findings from Ask the Children Others will alert us to areas we may want to change both in the way we approach our work and in the way we interact with our children.

What do kids want the most from working parents?
While more than half of employed parents guess that their children want more time with them, in fact, most children did not put this on top of their list. Instead, kids wished that their parents would be less stressed and less tired from work. And it is older, more than younger, children who feel they don’t have enough time with their parents, and especially feel they have too little time with their fathers.

What kind of time matters to children? The amount of time parents spend with them does make a difference to children. For example, kids who spend a larger amount of time with their mothers said they feel more important and loved than those who spend less time with their mothers. The content and the quality of their time together are also important. “The activities they engage in, whether or not the time they have together is frenetic or calm, and whether they believe their parents are really focusing on them when they are together” are also key factors.

Data from this study show clearly that we have been engaging in the wrong debate. It is not either quality time or quantity of time. Both are vital. Children feel more positive about parents who are involved in doing things with them. And parents and children value the time they spend together, whether it’s just eating dinner, being around each other in a non-rushed way, or doing a special activity.

Therefore, Galinsky suggests that we use different language to describe the time parents and children spend together. Instead of agonizing over the relative importance of “quality” and “quantity” time, we should say that the children need “focused” times and “hang-around” times. The focused times are when kids are getting a parent’s undivided attention. This may involve a special event or may simply happen during daily routines. And these times are not necessarily stress-free. For example, you could be grappling with a problem situation together.

What about working vs. stay-at-home moms?
These findings, in particular, should go a long way toward reducing the guilt of working moms. Ask the Children looked for differences in the ways employed (part-time or full-time) and non-employed mothers are viewed by their children. Surprisingly, the researchers found no differences. In fact, “having a working mother” was never the main factor in how children assessed their mothers’ parenting skills. It is not whether or not moms work; it is the relationship they establish with their children that matters. As Galinsky observes, “An at-home mother is not automatically an attentive mother, nor is an employed mother necessarily inattentive.”

The study also confirmed and extended the results of earlier research as to whether working mothers are “good” or “bad” for children. There is now much more evidence showing that a mother’s work is not, in itself, the most important variable that influences children’s positive development. Rather, it is a combination of other factors including: the mother’s comfort level with her choice to work, the income her job brings in, the quality of child care she uses, the resources available from her family and neighborhood, and the warmth, sensitivity, and responsiveness she shows to her children.

adapted from Work & Family Life Newsletter






















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