Work is an important part of your family life. But how much does your child really understand about your work, what you do, and what your work means to you? Many parents don't talk about what happens at work because they think their children aren't interested or because they’re trying to keep work and family life separate and don't want to “bring work home.” But talking about work with your child can open the door to meaningful conversations that teach valuable lessons about work and life.
Having the conversation
"One of the things we have found from the research that we've done is that parents don't necessarily talk very intentionally with their children about work," says Ellen Galinsky, author of the acclaimed book Ask the Children: The Breakthrough Study That Reveals How to Succeed at Work and Parenting (Morrow, 1999). "But when they do, it makes an enormous difference."
You can start talking to your kids about work even when they’re still very young. The purpose of these conversations is to help your child understand why you work, what you do, and to begin to appreciate the meaningful role that work plays in our lives. Your child probably won't be interested in everything you do at work and may not want to talk about your work every day. But your conversations will lay the foundation for more complex talks later on. Help your child understand your job. Talk about your work and what you do in simple terms appropriate to your child’s age: "I work with computers and help companies use computers to solve problems."
Read picture books about the rewards of work to a young child. Many experts recommend the classic Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, which shows children that hard work lets you help others and feel useful even if it’s sometimes very tiring. A teacher or librarian can recommend others, including books about specific occupations or types of workplaces.
Talk about your reasons for working hard. Make it clear that money isn't the only motivator or reason you work. Explain why your work is important to you. You could say something like, "I get a lot of satisfaction from my job because I know I'm helping people. I hope you'll feel that way one day about your work."
Look for opportunities to talk about work. Respond promptly when your child asks about work (yours or anyone else's) or shows an interest in a friend or relative's job. When you're working late on a project and your child is working late on homework, you might draw a parallel by saying something like, "Just as you sometimes have homework that takes longer than usual, I sometimes have work projects that take extra time to be sure that I do my best."
Talk about the good days at work. Parents often share stories about the bad days at work but not the good days, according to the study conducted for Ask the Children. Share stories about good things that happen and the things you most enjoy about your job.
When you talk about difficulties at work, share how you’re handling those challenges. Your child might be interested in and benefit from hearing about how you coped with a difficult client or handled a mistake you made at work. That teaches valuable lessons that your children can apply to their own problems.
Encourage other adults in your child's life to talk about their work experiences. If you have someone over to dinner who does interesting work or has met interesting people, have your guest talk about it with your family.
Don't overdo it. "Know when to stop talking about work," advises Galinsky. Children are, of course, most focused on their own lives and want you to pay attention to what they’re doing and feeling.
Bringing your child to work with you
One of the best ways to help kids understand your work and what you do is to take them to work with you. Start when your child is younger and continue over the years as he or she grows up. For a younger child, touring the building, seeing what your office looks like, sitting at your desk, and visiting "exciting" areas like the lunchroom or the vending machines can be fun. For an older child, helping with small tasks like photocopying or filing papers may be interesting.
When you bring your child to work with you, introduce him or her to your co-workers and ask them to explain what they do. The Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day website includes a Parent's Toolkit with ideas for successful visits that you can adapt for any day of the year.
If you work from home, consider taking your child with you on a business trip to see the company where you work, the meetings you attend, or the clients you work with. If you can’t bring your child to work with you, take pictures of your workplace and workspace to share with him or her.
Teaching your child valuable lessons
Your child's first lessons about work and what it means to work come from you. What messages are you passing on? Here are some valuable lessons about work you can teach your child:
- Work is a place for learning and growing. When your child sees you learning new skills and pursuing new opportunities at work, it helps him or her understand that learning is a lifelong process and not just something that happens in school.
- The best work is often collaborative. Talk about working on a team and with others and about the value of sharing different ideas and points of view. Help your child see how you can take other people's perspectives into account when you’re solving a problem or working on a task together.
- Work can sometimes be challenging and difficult. Think of a work challenge you faced, and talk about it in ways your child can understand. For example, you can help kids handle their own worries by talking about the nervousness you felt before a meeting with an important person and how you dealt with it.
- Problem solving is an essential skill. Help your child learn the process of problem solving: identifying the problem, brainstorming many potential solutions, evaluating what would work and what wouldn't for each one, and then selecting one solution to try.
- Doing a great job is tremendously satisfying. We all want our children to have a good work ethic and learn the value of commitment to high-quality work.