Years before "Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day" became a thing, my dad occasionally brought me to his office as the need arose. There was something a bit thrilling about gaining entry into this adult world of cubicles, dry-erase boards and name badges. It was a novelty to see Dad in this grownup space. But today, when so many parents are working from home alongside kids who are schooling from home, every day is bring-your-child-to-work day. And "novelty" no longer describes it.
Nor is the pandemic experience likely to create the positive effects hoped for by the organizers of take-the-kids-to-work events. For one thing, the children aren't getting an especially exciting view of what their moms and dads do for work. Parents who are capable of working remotely tend to be knowledge workers, whose work mostly happens inside the brain. There's not a lot to see. Nor are kids getting to see the fun parts of work, like business travel or professional conferences.
Many parents trying to work from home may be interacting less with their children, not more. "In counties where people are staying home the most, we're seeing more neglect," says Kerri Raissian, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, citing preliminary data from Indiana and Georgia. That's a first. Before the pandemic, increased time at home wasn't associated with child maltreatment. But now, calls to poison control are up, as are acute pediatric injuries such as bicycle accidents — presumably because kids are getting into trouble while their parents are trying to work. Basically, Raissian says, work-from-home and school-from-home means that "people are bringing their kids to work but leaving them to play in the parking lot."
She also worries about the longer-term effects of overtaxed parents telling children to wait … and wait, and wait. Kids are being asked to wait not just more, but also at unusual times — nights and weekends — because parents with flexible jobs are working different hours. During the pandemic, she says, "It is really hard to protect family time." That can make kids feel dejected, as if parents care more about working than about them.
"Physical presence is not the same as psychological presence," says Stewart D. Friedman, a Wharton professor of management and co-author of "Parents Who Lead." "When you're physically present but psychologically absent, people know it." It's important for parents to have times when they're fully present for their kids. And also for them to explain to the children that working is something they do to provide for them.
Marisa Porges, author of "What Girls Need" and head of the Baldwin School in Pennsylvania, says children who are watching their parents work from home are learning from them how to handle things like failure, stress and work-life balance. Parents who cope well give their children tools they'll need as adults.
"It's important to remember as parents that we're modeling how you get the things you want, how you self-advocate and set boundaries," she says. When a parent explains to her boss that she can't have a call at 7 p.m. because it's dinner time, not only does she show her children that they come first, but she also shows them it's OK for work to come second. Building a little respite into the day — a walk, or a phone call to a friend — models healthy behavior, too. Parents who share the highlights and lowlights of the workday can help kids realize that setbacks are normal, and demystify what they do all day.
It's not that there are no silver linings here. Friedman says the parents he talks to are getting to know their children better, especially the parents of teenagers. Porges says that her students are realizing how complicated real-world problems are, and how much impact someone like a scientist can have. And despite her fears about child neglect, Raissian is glad to see helicopter parenting run into a brick wall, and parents let go of their fear of screen time — those studies, she says, were "always overblown."
Nonetheless, these are slender reeds. The bigger picture here is a worrisome one. "I think families are really struggling," Raissian concludes. "All families are struggling, not just the ones we think of as high-risk." There's a reason it's supposed to be take-your-child-to-work day, not take-your-child-to-work year.
Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron's, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.