04/26/2012 10:29 am ET Updated Jun 26, 2012

What Does Take Your Child To Work Day Mean In 2012?

When Ms. Magazine created "Take Our Daughters To Work Day" 20 years ago, it was a statement of how far girls had still to go.

When the name was changed to "Take Our Sons And Daughter To Work Day" in 2003, it was a measure of how far girls had come.

And today, as 37 million kids visit 3.5 million workplaces across the country, it is a chance to reflect on where all our children are going next.

The day was originally born of a time when girls seemed to be stalled and floundering. "A national intervention" was what Marie Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation for Women, called it -- one that "sends a positive message to girls and focuses on their potential.'' It came at a time when books like "Reviving Ophelia" worried for girls' futures, and when experts told us that young women lacked for self-confidence, strong role models, and solid opportunities. Bring them to the office and show them what is possible, the thinking went. And do so without boys around to steal their spotlight.

By 2003, however, times had changed, and so did the name. We were beginning, then, to think of boys as the problem children, or, more accurately, the children with problems -- more likely to be victims of violence, or suffer from learning disorders, or to be diagnosed with ADHD. At the same time, we didn't see our girls as quite so helpless anymore. Shouldn't all our children have a chance to see what Mom and Dad do all day, we wondered. Don't both sexes need a glimpse of what their futures might hold? Even "Reviving Ophelia" author Mary Bray Pipher came out in favor of adding boys to the day.

Fast forward another decade, and "The Flip" is all but complete. (That's what Liza Mundy calls it in "The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family," a chronicle of how dramatically gender assumptions have changed.) The kids who attend this year's incarnation of TYCTWD (Take Your Child To Work Day) will find themselves in workplaces where, nationwide, 50 percent of the jobs are held by women, and 40 percent of those women earn more than their spouses. Women are doing better in universities and graduate schools than men. Girls have steadily closed the math and science gap with boys. And the worries of the founders that girls will assume that they can only grow up to be nurses, while only boys can grow up to be doctors? With 57 percent of today's pediatricians (along with 70 percent of pediatric residents) being women, odds are that a male doctor is the exception in your child's world.

And yet, TYCTWD keeps growing, raising the question of why millions of parents are excusing their children from class and allowing them to tag along to work. What is it that we are hoping they will SEE?

Their personal possibilities in the workplace? The jobs that they can do when they grow up? Maybe. But if the recent past is any predictor, then more than half the jobs that our kids will hold in the future have not been invented yet. And even fewer children will go into whatever line of work their parents did. So if it's a career fair you have in mind, this likely isn't the right day.

The glory and majesty of work? Perhaps. For a few of us. But I'd wager that given the recent downturns and upheavals and shakeups, most of us come with feelings toward work that are somewhat less than grand. In fact, at many companies, the TYCTWD activities have been cut back or eliminated in bare bones budgets. The parents giving tours of their cubicles, pods and workstations this year will likely feel just plain lucky to still have them at all.

So maybe it's the grind and the slog that we should be teaching? Preparing them for the decades of work that will be expected when it becomes their turn?

I suspect that's overcompensating just a bit. Times may have changed, but one can still hope for your children to find life's work that fulfills and satisfies; it might not be all fun and games, but a job that isn't all misery either. A job that sends them home to their own homes each night with stories to tell their own children about what Mom or Dad did all day.

And, in the end, isn't that the best reason to bring them along today? So that they understand where we are and what we're doing while we're away from them. To fill in their blanks, and complete their mental pictures and give them a slightly bigger piece of ourselves.

Looking back at where TYCTWD began, and what it's been through, that feels like its right and logical next incarnation -- a day to point our kids toward who they will be in the future, yes. But also to stop for a moment and ground them in the particulars of who their parents are right now.