How to respond: 'Mommy, why do you have to work?'

Posted: Sunday, November 07, 2004

"'Honey, we need to buy groceries,' didn't really make a lot of sense" to a 2-year-old, says Welfeld, then a corporate vice president in communications.

Parents play a dominant role in shaping children's lifelong attitudes about work. Yet amid the emotions raised by leaving kids to do our jobs, many moms and dads fumble the ball, mumbling explanations that are a bad fit developmentally or just plain wrong. In fact, parents' influence on kids' work ethic plays out not only in words, but in emotions, behavior and attitudes, in different ways at different stages of a child's life and often not in the way we think.

Parents generally are failing to convey positive feelings about work to their kids. In a national survey of 605 parents, 69 percent of mothers say they like their work a lot. But in a comparable sample of 1,023 third- through 12th-graders, only 42 percent of the kids say their mothers like their jobs a lot, according to the study, reported in "Ask the Children" by Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute, New York. The same gap existed with fathers; 60 percent of dads say they like their jobs a lot, but only 41 percent of children see that positive attitude in their fathers.

Some parents fear acting as if they like their jobs will hurt their kids' feelings. Thus, they try to reassure them by acting as if they don't have a choice, saying, as I used to tell my toddler, "Honey, I'm sorry, I have to go to work." Other parents simply feel sad at separating from their children, and focus too much on those feelings.

In fact, those emotions speak more loudly to babies and toddlers than any words a parent might utter. "You can explain to a 2- or 3-year-old until you're blue in the face that you need to pay the mortgage," says Jane Healy, a Vail, Colo., educational psychologist and author. "What they're going to pick up is your emotional attitude toward work and what they see it doing to you." A child may feel, "If there's something making my mother miserable, there must be something to be frightened of." Before long, "work" becomes a four-letter word.

A better route: Focus on the positive, such as, "I'm really glad I have interesting work to do. And you have interesting work to do, too, when the babysitter comes and you help her put away the groceries," Dr. Healy suggests. Promise to do something together when you return; small children aren't very aware of the passage of time, and looking forward to, say, hearing stories from your workday will help them stay upbeat through the day.

Welfeld saw the power of parental attitude when she quit corporate life last year to start a business in her Bergenfield, N.J., home. In the past, the stress of her corporate job seeped into home life, straining leave-takings from her two children, now 3 and 1. But now, "my attitude toward work is so positive" that she has seen a change in her son: He has relaxed and is more optimistic, and he loves preschool.

The next stage, ages 5 through the elementary-school years, is perhaps most important of all in building a work ethic. Dr. Healy calls this the "age of industry," when children love to accomplish things. This is the time to foster the good feelings that can arise from accomplishment. Celebrate jobs completed, with words or perhaps an outing.

Some parents mistakenly assume at this stage they need to take charge of their kids' work habits and direct them in an authoritative way. But studies show parents who support self-reliance who encourage kids to make their own choices, rather than applying pressure or controls are more likely to raise hard-working kids.

In talking about work with kids of this age, draw positive parallels between your job and their play and school. When Michael Weinberger's 5-year-old daughter asks, "Why do you have to go to work today?" he replies, "I get to go to work today. It's the same way with you. You get to go to school." He emphasizes that he loves his work as a portfolio manager at a New York hedge fund.

Tell your kids about your own intrinsic motivation, Dr. Healy says. For example: "I feel good about what I did today because I helped some people," or "The products I sold today are going to make people comfortable."

By middle-school age, kids are ready to understand the values, moral reasoning and financial needs that underlie work choices why we work and how our job relates to household needs, to other people and to the world at large.

At this point, you will begin to see in your kids the results of your teachings. Aaron Dobrinsky, CEO of RoomLinX, Hackensack, N.J., has long told his kids: "You will only excel at what you love. If you hate getting up to go to work every day, you're not going to excel at it." They seem to be listening; his 16-year-old daughter loves working with special-needs children and plans to make it a career; she has started job-shadowing special-ed professionals.

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