Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2001
Vol. 58
No. 7

What Children Want from Parents—and How Teachers Can Help

Parents do not always know what their children think. But educators can help students connect more meaningfully with their families.

If you could change the way that your mother's or father's work affects your life, what would you wish to change?
As part of the research for my book Ask the Children (2000), I posed this question not just to children, but also to parents, whom I asked to predict their children's responses. Most parents (56 percent) guessed that their children would wish for more time with them. Surprisingly, more time was not at the top of the children's wish list. Only 10 percent of the children wished to spend more time with their mothers, and 15.5 percent wished to spend more time with their fathers. Most children wished that their mothers (34 percent) and their fathers (27.5 percent) would be less stressed and tired. In contrast, only 2 percent of the parents guessed that their children would make that wish.
Does this mean that children don't care about spending time with their parents? Not at all. Children wouldn't care about their parents' fatigue levels if they didn't want to spend time together. In fact, I found that the more time that children spent with their parents, the more positively they felt about the way they were raised.
  • Think about work and family life;
  • Talk about work and family life;
  • Behave with children; and
  • Communicate with children.
Here are eight findings from the study and their implications for education leaders.

Working Parents Are Not "Good" or "Bad"

In our conversations about work and family life, we often hear that working mothers have either a good or a bad effect on their children. The study probed this issue by asking children to assess 12 parenting skills that link to healthy development and school success. These included such items as "raises me with good values," "is someone I can go to when I am upset," "spends time talking with me," and "provides family traditions and rituals." The study found no differences in the assessments given by children whose mothers are employed and by those whose mothers work in the home.
This result confirms several decades of research indicating that we can't predict how a child will turn out simply because his or her mother works. As Lois Hoffman and her colleagues at the University of Michigan (Hoffman & Youngblade, 1999) point out, maternal employment doesn't automatically affect children; the context in which maternal employment takes place, however, makes a difference. Similarly, a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study of early child care (1997) examined 1,200 children ages 0–7 from 10 communities around the United States and found that employment does not affect the bond between mother and child. Overall, the research reveals that what matters most is how children are raised—what values their parents have, whether their parents follow what they preach, how their parents connect to their kids, and whether the children are priorities in their parents' lives.
Despite this research, the debate about whether mothers should work outside the home rages on. I often tell a story: I was called in to a school to mediate a "mommy war," an ongoing conflict between the mothers who worked outside the home and those who did not. To address the conflict, I first talked to each group. I found that the at-home mothers felt put down. They felt as if they were the "mop-up act" at school—always called on to work with the schools, to pick up sick children, to arrange play dates. Yet when one of these mothers went to a cocktail party, for example, and a guest asked what she did, the guest turned away to talk with someone more "interesting" when the mother said that she stayed home with her children.
But the employed mothers also felt put down. They felt that people believed that they were sacrificing their children at the altar of their own materialism and success and that they were missing important moments with their children. At a subsequent school meeting, when the parents heard all the stories and realized that the mothers felt put down no matter how they lived, the two groups discovered that they were not each other's enemies. Perhaps the real enemy is a society that does not value mothering—and I would add fathering—as much as it should.

Implications for Educators

  • Help parents address and manage their guilt. Guilt is a useful emotion when it first appears because it signals a discrepancy between what we expect and what is happening. Like a fever, guilt reminds us that something is wrong. But guilt can become destructive when, again like a fever, it rages untreated. That's when parents try to make up for working too much by buying their children presents or refusing to discipline them. In school meetings, education leaders can help parents manage guilt by having meetings or bringing in speakers to talk about "the guilt traps."
  • Stop the mommy wars. Education leaders can help subdue the mommy wars and other conflicts among parents in their schools. They can meet with parents, as I did, to help groups of parents communicate with one another and stop putting one another down.
  • Work to increase the respect for parents. Studies, such as those conducted by Public Agenda (Farkas & Johnson, 1997), show that the public views most parents negatively. My study reveals that although most parents try to do well by their children and, indeed, are doing a good job, some parents do not have good parenting skills. On the basis of the children's responses from my study, this percentage ranges from 10 to 40 percent, depending on the specific parenting skill. We need to ensure that we respect those parents who are raising their children well—whatever their work status and lifestyle. We must also encourage those who are not doing a good job to find help so that they can improve.

Fathers Matter, Too

The national conversation about work and family life typically focuses on mothers, yet finding after finding shows the importance of fathers in their children's lives. For example, when I asked children whether they had too little, enough, or too much time with their mothers and fathers, children were more likely to say that they had too little time with their fathers (35 percent) than with their mothers (28 percent).

Implications for Educators

  • Include fathers in all efforts to reach out to and involve parents. Fathers say that educators often ignore them. Classroom notes are addressed to mothers; if both parents are present at a school meeting, the mother is the focus of attention; and schools call on mothers to participate in activities. To redress this situation, be aware of how you approach and talk to both parents.
  • Ask men to advise you on how to involve fathers. Set up a group of fathers to work with you on how to increase men's involvement in the lives of students.

Quality and Quantity Are Both Important

In the debate about work and family life, people often argue over which is more important: quality of time or quantity of time. In my study, I looked at how much time children report spending with their parents, as well as what happens during that time—the activities that parents and children do together, whether they are rushed or calm, and whether children feel that their parents can really focus on them when they are together. I found that both quality and quantity are important.

Implications for Educators

  • Change the language that you use. In the interviews that I conducted with parents, I found that many parents don't like the term quality time. It connotes perfection and that everyone is having an idyllic time. No parent ever deals with a difficult situation, for example, and no children fight across the dining room table. To emphasize that both the amount of time and the content of time are important, and to emphasize the need to grapple with the difficult moments in parenting, I suggest using words that connote connection, such as hang-around time or focused time.
  • Help parents know that small moments make a big difference. When children describe the best times they have with parents, they often describe everyday moments, such as the songs parents sing when they wake them up or the way a father says "Go Tiger" when he sends his daughter off to school. In parent meetings, help parents describe and share these small moments that matter so much.
  • Help parents value their family traditions. When asked what they would remember from their childhood, most children spoke about family traditions. One child remembered always singing in the car. Another child recalled a bedtime story that he and his siblings were told every night about a cow, a pig, and a chicken—the children would start a sentence to begin the story, and the mother would make up the rest. In another family, each child talked about his or her day over dinner. In classrooms, you can have children share their favorite family traditions, which you can compile in a booklet that children take home. Sharing these stories will give parents good ideas to try.

Parents' Jobs Matter

When people talk about how parents' work affects children, they mention the age of the child when the mother goes back to work and the number of hours that parents work each day. Yet research shows that these factors are relatively unimportant in a child's development. The kind of work that the parent does and how he or she feels about the work, however, do matter. To adapt an old presidential election phrase, "It's the job, stupid."
In the Ask the Children study, I identified those aspects of jobs that matter. I found that parents are in better moods and have more energy for parenting when they have jobs that are reasonably demanding, that permit them to focus on their work, that are meaningful and challenging, that provide opportunities to learn and to be autonomous, and that have good interpersonal and supportive relationships. Parents are then able reinvest their energy back at home.

Implications for Educators

  • Change your language. In my parent interviews, I found that many parents did not like the word balance because it implies a scale. We are always supposed to be seeking the midpoint, and if one side (work or home life) is up, then the other side is down. My study shows that parenting is not a zero-sum game. If work life is up, then family life is likely to be up as well. I suggests that we use the term navigating, which suggests a process. We can have good days and bad days, but if we know where we are going, we are more likely to get there.
  • Help employers see children as assets. All too often, professionals talk about children as problems when it comes to work—the "child care problem" or the "sick child problem." Far from being problems, children can actually invigorate and energize parents. In fact, 71 percent of parents report that they are in a good mood at work often or very often because of their children. If you help parents recognize that children can give them the energy to do a good job at work, they in turn can communicate this to their colleagues and bosses at work.
  • Help employers become more family-friendly. The study revealed that developing work-family programs and policies are necessary but not sufficient for supporting parents' needs. We need to focus on supervisors and how they treat employees when family issues arise. We also need to focus on whether the organizational culture supports employees in their lives outside of work. In the many ways that schools and employers work together, school leaders can recognize, reward, and appreciate family friendliness. For example, in one community, schools and employers worked together to give parents time off on the first day of school.

Parental Stress Affects Children's Stress

This study reveals that one-third of children (32 percent) worry about their parents often or very often. If we include the children who say that they sometimes worry about their parents, the number goes up to two-thirds. Many children worry about their parents because they think that their parents feel tired and stressed.

Implications for Educators

Educators can address all these topics in a parent meeting.
  • Encourage parents to think through the aspects of their jobs that cause them stress. Allow parents to do a self-assessment and have them focus on one or two changes that they could make to alleviate some stress.
  • Help parents learn techniques for managing stress. These include ways to "turn off work," such as meditating before work, listening to music, or changing clothes after work.
  • Help parents understand that the end of the day can be "arsenic hour." Parents are sometimes not sure whether to "take it" or "give it" to the children during this time. Children save up their concerns for the people with whom they feel the safest, their parents, who may not understand why a child is negative at the end of the day. A teacher who says "She's that way with you because she trusts you" can help the parent feel good rather than embarrassed or ashamed.
  • Share "hello" techniques with parents. Having a homecoming ritual—such as enjoying a particular food together that won't spoil dinner—can help smooth the transition from work to home.
  • Encourage parents to set realistic expectations about what they can accomplish at home. Help parents explore two or three goals at which they are likely to succeed. This approach is a lot more helpful than having dozens of expectations that are doomed to failure.

Parents Like Their Jobs

The Ask the Children study found that although three out of five parents like their jobs a lot, only two out of five children think that their parents do. Many parents see work as competing with time for their children, so they don't share much about their jobs with their children. In addition, parents often come home and complain about work without realizing that their actions and reactions are a living laboratory for children to learn about the world of work.

Implications for Educators

  • Help parents become aware that children are more likely to model themselves after their parents if they think that their parents like their work. As one child put it, "I want my mother to like her work—just not more than she loves me." If parents don't like their jobs, then they need to share how they are preparing their children to have better jobs than they have.
  • Help children understand the reasons that parents work. Obviously, money is an important reason to work, but there are other reasons. Education leaders who work directly with children can introduce them to the world of work by bringing people with different jobs into the classroom and asking them what their work means to them.

Child Care Supports Family Care

Whenever I testify in the U.S. Congress about our child care research, the debate often gets sidetracked by an assumption that child care supplants parental care. In these debates, people refer to child care as "stranger care" and children as "day-care reared." This stance couldn't be further from reality. No study has ever found that child care supplants parental care.
Parents need supportive coworkers and supervisors, family and friends to turn to, and good child care. These factors are the essential support that parents must have for navigating work and family life. Unfortunately, only 20 percent of parents report that their child care has been very positive for their children's development. Our research at the Families and Work Institute, however, finds that improving the quality of child care is possible.

Implications for Educators

  • Work to improve the child care in your community. Child care for young children can be like extra education before school. In addition, before- and after-school care can have an impact on the level of crime in a community. Many programs around the United States are trying to improve the quality of child care. Education leaders can help create or join these efforts—whether the child care is in the school or in a community setting—because we all have a stake in children's care.

Knowing Our Children Matters

Older children in our survey did not give their parents very high marks for knowing what goes on in their lives.

Implications for Educators

  • Help parents with communication skills. Parents can learn many techniques to open the channels of communication with their children. Help parents learn to ask specific questions rather than general ones—just as good teachers do. Encourage parents to set up traditions in which the whole family talks together.
  • Provide school or community opportunities to "ask the children." Hold discussion times in classrooms during which children share how they feel about issues of concern or interest. For older children, hold school or community forums and invite parents to attend. Although some people confuse asking the children with abdicating to children, the latter does not have to occur. Adults need to remain the adults, using the information that their children provide rather than turning authority over to them.

The Solution

Recently, I held a forum for teens. The participants said that although most of them were good kids and were trying hard, some teens do have a variety of problems. One student put it well: "If we are the problem, then we need to be part of the solution." Schools have a unique opportunity to harness that power and include young people in addressing the difficult issues that they face growing up. By encouraging communication, schools also become part of the solution.

Farkas, S., & Johnson, J. (1997). Kids these days: What Americans really think about the next generation. New York: Public Agenda.

Hoffman, L. W., & Youngblade, L. M. (1999). Mothers at work: Effects on children's well-being. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (1997). The effects of infant child care on infant-mother attachment security: Results of the NICHD study of child care. Child Development, 68 (5), 860–879.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
From our issue
Product cover image 101036.jpg
Beyond Class Time
Go To Publication