Natalie Serianni was in a Zoom meeting when one of her colleagues alerted her to a child behind her. With her headphones and tall desk chair, the Seattle, Washington, English professor hadn’t noticed her second grader—who’s remote learning this year—sneaking into the home office.
For many parents, every day has turned into Take Your Child to Work Day. An October 2020 Pew Research Center survey found that 43 percent of employed parents had the option to work from home; of that group, about seven in 10 parents did so most or all of the time.
Although Serianni’s colleagues were amused by her child’s surprise cameo, telecommuting parents are often under serious strain as they juggle jobs and child care. In 2020, 50 percent of these parents found it difficult to complete their work without interruptions, compared with 20 percent of telecommuters who didn’t have children under 18.
While adults working from home face productivity challenges, kids watching them are affected, too. Before the pandemic, work was a nebulous thing that parents did, separate from family life, says Janine Domingues, a clinical psychologist with the Child Mind Institute. Children might have been able to name their parents’ occupations but couldn’t actually explain what they did all day. Now kids are getting a real-life visual of their parents’ jobs.
This ongoing view might offer children more growth opportunities than a one-time Take Your Child to Work Day—and has impacted family dynamics as well. When kids understand their parents’ jobs, they feel invested in their parents’ career success, says Alyssa Westring, a professor of management at DePaul University and co-author of Parents Who Lead.
“If my kids know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, they can then feel like they’re part of the team that’s making this happen,” she says.
Even though kids are transitioning back to in-person classrooms, experts say the insights they’ve gained into their parents’ work lives over the past year have likely led to positive emotional developments. Here’s how you can maximize the remaining time you have of working and schooling together from home.
The stress of work-from-home on kids
First, for parents worried that pressure from their work-from-home lifestyle is harming kids who are also learning from home, take heart.
Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World, says that she’s seen parent-child bonds strengthen over the past year. Taking lunch breaks together or shooting hoops in between calls gives kids time with parents that wasn’t possible before the pandemic.
“Those little connections are really meaning a lot to kids right now,” Hurley says. “That’s stuff kids don’t normally have.”
These small moments of closeness may be a critical buffer against stress. In an ongoing survey examining the pandemic’s impact on families, Phil Fisher, psychology professor and director of the University of Oregon’s Center for Translational Neuroscience, found that parent-child bonds have remained strong during the pandemic, despite increased conflict.
But experts say that increased stress can actually be beneficial to kids observing it in their parents—if parents can still maintain a nurturing environment. For instance, if a parent can articulate, I’m having a stressful moment. Our WiFi is down, I can’t get into my Zoom meeting, and people are texting me, that normalizes the idea that everyone gets frustrated, Hurley says.
“I think it’s normalizing stress for [kids] in a positive way,” she says. “The key is when parents are able to stay calm and just name it.”
The impact on kid-parent relationships
When kids understand that a parent needs to finish a conference call before helping them with homework, they can develop resiliency, patience, and self-sufficiency. When they see a parent dealing with a difficult co-worker or struggling to meet a deadline, they learn that adults—often seen as the solver of all problems—don’t always have the answers.
Taken together, that means kids are getting a different perspective about their parents that they’ve likely never had before. Suddenly parents aren’t just the adults who enforce screen-time rules and pour cereal in the morning. And Domingues says that can help children develop empathy.
“They’re not getting just the piece of us that’s in parenting mode,” Westring explains. “If you see someone as a whole person, you can be more empathetic to them because you’re seeing them more clearly.”
Sometimes, she adds, that can lead to a respect for parents that children didn’t have before the pandemic. “They’re also seeing us be leaders and experts in our area,” Westring says. “They can see themselves in that role as something to aspire to.”
And now more than ever, kids are understanding that they aren’t the only thing in their parents’ lives—and that’s OK. Ellen Ernst Kossek, a work-life researcher and professor at Purdue University's Krannert School of Management, says the goal is to teach kids that “we love you, and you’re one of the most important things in our lives—but you’re not the only thing in our lives.”
Making 'work-from-home' work better
How can parents continue to integrate their work life in a way that benefits their children’s social and emotional development? Experts offer up these ideas.
Take your kids to work. Invite children to spend a morning with you. “Allow them to observe different facets of your work day, such as listening in on one of those virtual Zoom meetings or watching you give a presentation,” says Susan Hanold, a vice president in ADP’s Strategic Advisory Services group, who writes and speaks about remote work culture. Spend your lunch break together, and let children ask questions about what they observed.
Help kids practice problem solving. Ask your child’s opinion on something you’re struggling with at work. For example: I have to choose between two projects with the same short deadline. What do you think I should do?
Let kids be the experts. Show children a presentation you’re working on or a project you’re developing, and ask how they’d make it better. (Their presentation skills might be better than yours!)
Change it up. Like many parents, Westring started out sharing a table with her kids as they all worked on different devices. But the default setup isn’t always best, she notes. Brainstorm with kids on how to tweak the work environment to benefit everyone. For instance, can you designate 30 minutes each morning to answer e-mails while your kids read or do homework nearby, then retreat to separate spaces? Experiment with the new setup for two weeks, then evaluate whether it served your family well.
Create transition time. Model work-life balance by building in transition time between work and “at home.” For instance, Kossek suggests a family walk or a change of clothes after the workday is through. (Here’s an article about why fake commutes for kids can be beneficial.)
Share your day with kids. Try the high-low exercise, in which you describe a positive and negative part of your day. For example: My high was finishing a huge project. My low was getting a disappointing e-mail from a client. Sharing openly helps bring parents and children closer, Domingues says. “That dialogue then opens up kids to then be able to share similarly with you.”