What lessons about work and family should we be role-modeling for our children?
For me, I hope my son learns that work can bring fulfillment, meaning, and opportunities to help others- not just money. I also hope he learns that work-family balance means family first and that his career priorities should take his future spouse/family’s needs into account.
Young kids don’t fully understand why we sometimes have to be away from them and at work. They know they miss us, and they can get resentful- it’s only natural. In response, it is easy to say that we work for money- to buy them things- and that we’d rather not work and just be with them.
It’s a comforting story in the moment, but I bet it is not entirely true for most of us- and I think it actually sends a very different signal than what we should be sending.
Someday, and sooner than we think, my Nick* (and your kids) will be making choices about their careers. And I’d rather he understand that work is not JUST a chore, and not JUST about money. Right now, he wants to be a Jedi (he’d be really good at this!), baseball player, geologist, waiter and circus performer. But when the time comes, I want him:
- To choose a career that makes enough money for his life to be comfortable and so he can take care of his future family.
- To choose a career he enjoys, finds interesting and meaningful, and through which he can make a larger contribution.
- To understand the importance of balancing his career with that of his future life partner (see part 2)
- To understand the relative importance of work and family and of working towards a balanced set of priorities.
I once heard a quote that “the best way to teach your son to be a man, is to be a good man and let him watch”.
This is why I am very mindful about sending signals to my son about the importance of both work and family. These are hard things to teach directly in words, but I try to get these lessons through by my actions and by how I talk about work when he is around. Here’s what I hope he learns from me:
1. Work is for money, and money is important.
That’s why they call it work. And providing financially for our families is something we dads are have to do. While I have long advocated keeping money in its proper perspective (see here, here, here and here), neither do I want to minimize its importance.
Our kids need to know (age-appropriately) about money, and to understand that their parents’ work is how we can buy the things we need. One of the ways we show our love for our kids is through our paid work. That’s hard to explain directly to a kid, but there are ways we can help them eventually understand.
For example, Nick recently began getting an allowance, and he has to do a set of chores each week to collect his $4. This has been a great way to teach him about money. He now better understands what things cost, and how he needs to save up for things he wants.
Since we started the allowance, Nick has started asking how much cars and houses and other stuff costs. I answer his questions honestly, and I try to make the point that one of the important reasons I work is so we can afford the things we need- and a few extra things we want. And this sometimes means I have to sacrifice some time that I would otherwise spend with him (as long as our kids get enough of our time, I think they will eventually understand when we have to occasionally spend long hours at work).
2. But it is not all about money- Work can be a source of meaning and fulfillment and an opportunity to help others
While Nick knows that my wife and I work for money, he also knows that we really enjoy many aspects of our work. I make sure to tell him when I have a particularly good day at work, and I try not to bring too much work stress home with me.
I talk to him about what I do- at age 7, he can understand that, as a college professor, I’m a teacher for older kids who are in college. He gets that I teach people how to be better bosses and managers. He also understands that I write on the internet about trying to be a good dad, and I occasionally do projects for companies. (These are simplifications, but a 7 year old can only understand so much).
He sometimes asks why I like my work so much, and I tell him that teaching is rewarding, the world needs more good managers, and writing about fatherhood is both satisfying and can help dads think about important things. I hope that, over time, he comes to see my work as at least somewhat fulfilling, important and helpful- and that he’ll seek out a fulfilling important helpful career for himself.
Nick’s been to my campus a few times (grrr school holidays) to see what I do and meet the people I work with. Last year, Nick and Amy came to a campus ceremony when I received a teaching award, and he thought it was pretty cool. I’m glad he sees at least a little of my work, and maybe this gives him an idea of what a positive workplace looks like.
TO BE CONTINUED
In part 2, I will cover two more lessons I hope Nick learns:
- My wife’s career is as important as mine
- Work has its place, but is never more important than him or family
…please also read part 2 and watch for part 3 on Monday April 29!
* Note: I only have a son, so my advice is directed towards him. I think most of these lessons apply to daughters as well, but I know some of our societal expectations about the relative importance of work-family for girls is different from boys (this would make a great guest post opportunity if anyone is interested). I welcome any feedback or ideas.
How do you teach and role-model with your kids about the importance of work? of work-family balance? Any advice? What values do you hope they learn? Let’s discuss in the comments section.