Is it possible to talk about balancing work and family life without invoking the image of the harried working mother? With two young kids, a full-time job, an overworked husband, and a freezer on the fritz, I'll admit: Not really.
As we recognize and celebrate National Work and Family Month, let's not devote so much ink to the straits of stressed-out parents that we forget an even more fundamental reason for promoting workplace flexibility. Why do we need better balance? Let's be blunt: to ensure our country's economic competitiveness in the years ahead. Today's kids are tomorrow's workforce. What society sows today we'll reap in 25 years as these children take on jobs -- whether in health or hospitality, energy or entertainment -- that will hopefully sustain our quality of life. They will be competing for positions in a worldwide marketplace that we can hardly imagine.
To succeed, they will need parents who give them more than the roof over their heads and the shoes on their feet. They will need their parents' time.
Today, the majority of mothers must go to work, want to go to work, or both. Fathers are, and want to be, far more involved in their children's lives. The problem is that child-rearing typically comes at a period of adult life in which a job can easily take over, demanding more responsibility and more attention to always-buzzing cell phones. The sour economy doesn't help. Parents facing stagnant wages are taking on extra hours to pay the bills or they are maintaining Herculean levels of productivity just to prevent pink slips. Paychecks don't come from making time for the kids.
Into this quagmire comes the latest science on how children learn and how much their future success depends on the experiences they have in their earliest years, from birth up through third grade and beyond. The research has created new urgency around the need for high-quality and affordable early education programs that put children on a path to success. But preschool, kindergarten and early elementary school teachers cannot do it alone. They need engaged parents who are truly present -- not just physically present -- in children's lives. Giving parents the ability to spend more time with their children will translate into the creation of more successful, creative and productive young adults 20 years from now. Here's why:
Time for Conversation
"Do you see the tractor? Where do you think it's going? Let's go watch." Working parents thirst for more chances to have these kinds of unrushed conversations with their kids. Science is showing that when children have a "conversational partner," as some developmental psychologists describe it, they grow socially and cognitively. Even as infants, before they are putting words together, children need adults who will pay attention to what interests them, point to new things and encourage their attempts at communication. Studies show that authentic back-and-forth interactions lead to language development later, which in turn has been tied to reading comprehension and school achievement. Think family dinners and Saturday outings -- not flashcard-frenzy vocab training. "The effect of the conversation is six times as great as the words," wrote Frederick J. Zimmerman, an associate professor at the school of public health at the University of California at Los Angeles, in a recent Pediatrics study on the importance of conversation for children up through age 4.
Time for Reading Aloud
More than two-thirds of fourth graders are not reading at grade level, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress. These numbers haven't budged much in decades. In the meantime, reading specialists and cognitive scientists have been accumulating evidence on how much children need to be exposed to words and ideas before they can be expected to comprehend them in print. Without ever hearing high-quality storybooks and non-fiction, many kids will struggle to make sense of what they read by third and fourth grade. Parents need time to read good books to their children every day. For parents who themselves are struggling to read fluently, they need time to listen to audiobooks (worth checking out from the public library) while snuggling on the couch with their kids. In my house this month -- when our nighttime routine hasn't gone haywire with email multitasking -- my husband and I take turns reading Pippi Longstocking to our 6-year-old daughter. She revels in Pippi's sly adventures, and she is getting exposed to words like "tightrope" and "expedition" that don't usually come up in everyday conversation and will surely come in handy when she sees them in other texts someday.
Time for Positive Discipline
As any harried parent can attest, we need to be better at disciplining our children."
The stresses of inflexible hours, nighttime work or schedules that change from week to week cause us to resort to yelling ("Put your shoes on, now!"), toothless threats ("if you don't stop asking me, there will be no dinner") and inconsistent rules from day to day ("Did you brush your teeth? Oh, don't bother -- it's past your bedtime"). Child development experts say that children respond much better to approaches that are neither punitive nor permissive but instead are firm, loving and consistent. Those good relationships with their parents will likely translate into fewer behavior problems in school and more academic success. But this kind of "positive discipline," as it's called by parenting experts, is difficult in real life without the padding of time. A preschoolers' temper tantrum will not stop in time for you to catch your bus. A father who warns his children that he will not drive away until everyone has buckled their seatbelts may someday find he has no choice but to put the car in park and sit there until his kids get the message.
Time for Play
Isn't playtime something that kids should be able to do without their parents? Sure. Research has shown that children can gain important skills by getting deeply involved in, say, playing "house" and all the child-directed rule making that comes with it. But parents need to provide the time, space and guidance to allow play to flower. That's not so easy when a parent's work schedule requires children to be transported to and from multiple childcare centers or care-givers throughout the day or after school. And unstructured play is less likely to flourish when stressed or exhausted parents seek solace by resorting to hours of television instead of allowing their kids to turn the house upside down building forts and playing pirate. Cognitive scientists have identified several benefits to children's pretend play, including the strengthening of "executive function" skills like paying attention and inhibiting impulses. (It takes a lot of self-discipline to stay in character, especially when you're 5.) Economists, notably James Heckman of the University of Chicago, have traced the acquisition of those kinds of behavioral skills to greater success attaining and retaining a job as a young adult. Ensuring time for more structured play, adult-to-child, is critical too. Don't forget the cognitive and social pluses that come with pulling out Parchesi.
These are four reasons why we need workplace flexibility to expand the amount of time workers can spend with their children. More flexible work hours, part-time schedules that allow healthcare coverage, job sharing, extended time off and parental leave are just a few of the smart ideas that experts have suggested over the years, and evidence is growing that businesses can thrive offering these policies. Each one would be a boon, not only to parents, and not only to their kids, but to our country's viability. Flexible, family-friendly policies have to be part of today's workplace if we want to raise a generation that will thrive in the workplaces of the future.
There's no such thing as a perfect parent. We're all going to be stressed and distant at one time or another. Wouldn't it be nice if our workplaces didn't exacerbate those tendencies?
Follow Lisa Guernsey on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LisaGuernsey