Fast-forward to now, when the pandemic has forced many people to work from home. The concept of being in the same physical space among actual colleagues borders on anachronistic in 2021. For those with children, there’s been an additional adjustment. Before schools reopened in the Netherlands, where we live, my dining room table was littered with the school books and laptops of my three children, with my husband or me at the helm, trying to do our own work.
It was disruptive, but it was also interesting to see the work my children are doing and to observe how they work.
At the same time, my children have been equally observing what my husband and I do during the day — which, as with my friend’s son years ago, has exposed some misconceptions. While they have always had some understanding of what my husband and I do for a living, our working life before covid was a fraction of how they experienced us. How has watching us work every day impacted how they perceive not only our careers, but careers in general?
The situation can benefit everyone, says Kimberly A.S. Howard, associate professor of counseling psychology and applied human development at Boston University. Howard says by age 4, children can begin to form ideas about various occupations. “There’s the opportunity, when work is happening at home, for the work to be more obvious to children, and for parents and adult caregivers to have real conversations about their work,” Howard says via Zoom. “When parents say, ‘this is how I spend my day and this is why I do it, this is what motivates me, this is what benefits come from it,’ kids can apply these ideas to other careers.”
My children have seen me working from home since their birth, at different levels of cognition. When he was about 3, my son (now 10) came into my office while I was writing an article. I made an attempt to trigger his interest, but he seemed unmoved. “What is it you think my job is, actually?” I asked. “Your job is to point at squares,” he said. To type.
“Younger kids are very focused on the concrete,” Howard says. “What is observable. The physical act is touching the keyboard, but what is it that you’re providing? It’s not until later that they begin to understand what these concrete steps represent, and that can be facilitated by conversation. We can explain that.”
My husband works in logistics for a multinational company that manufactures contact lenses. Before the pandemic, our children saw him leave the house for work — “ in their minds, a place filled with a mysterious air of “otherness” in relation to his home life. It was a place where he had a large, tidy office with a jar of chocolates and a warehouse with robots, where he knew people we didn’t, and which we only visited when Santa Claus paid his annual respects.
Before covid, my children believed their father was a scientist who made contact lenses, together with robots. They now understand that their dad spends most of his days in calls with colleagues, talking about things like SKU numbers. They get that their dad is part of a long chain that makes it possible for peopleto get contact lenses, but that’s less interesting. Such revelations can be disillusioning for young children thinking about careers at a stage when, according to Howard, ideas of jobs are characterized by “fantasy and imagination.”
And excitement. A study published in 1995, “Occupational Portrayals on Television,” examines how television dramatizes and sensationalizes careers for children. “Medical professionals are shown in hospital settings (as opposed to outpatient settings)” the researchers write. “They treat pathology more than they engage in prevention […].” And violent crimes such as murder are very common for television police, “whereas most real-life crimes are nonviolent and related to property.”
Children have been getting more firsthand glimpses at the often-mundane reality of their parent’s jobs, such as one 15-year-old, whose father works in the Netherlands for the European Space Agency. Turns out, at-home space exploration isn’t as gripping as you might think. “I noticed that he was always in meetings,” the teen, whose mother asked his name not be used, explains via email. “I knew my father was not an astronaut, but it still surprised me how little physics he used in his job. It isn’t what would come to mind, when one thinks of working on missions to space.”
Kai Levin, 16, of Vancouver, British Columbia, admires his dad’s job as a corporate video producer but admits it feels less “cool” lately. “Before, he got to travel all around the world and make videos,” Kai says via Messenger. “But now he is at the living room desk when I wake up. He’s still at his desk when I come home.” His sister, Lauren, 12, concurs that her dad’s job seems a little less glamorous lately. “He doesn’t go anywhere,” she says, also via Messenger. “He used to dress really sharp for the office, but now he just wears sweatpants and housecoats.”
It helps to remind children that working at home means many of us are working differently than we are accustomed, Howard says. Valentina Gultlingen, 14, who lives in the Netherlands, says after a year of doing schoolwork online, she definitely does not want a future job sitting in front of a computer. Her mother, a project manager, works from home. “I don’t know how she does it,” Valentina says. With online learning, she misses the academic and social benefits of bumping into other students between classes.
More positively, the pandemic has given children exposure to a broader range of jobs than they may have had previously, Howard says. “It trains their eye to see that this is an interconnected world,” Howard says, “and to develop an appreciation for a wide range of occupations, not just those that have been historically associated with prestige. Everyone is functioning for a purpose and we need to recognize how important it is that all of these roles are being occupied.”
As for my children, they are still in the stage of discovering what they love to do, sometimes connecting those interests to potential careers. My youngest daughter (7) wants to be a farmer because she likes the outdoors and loves animals. My older daughter (9) is curious and determined, and is always teaching herself a skill — from knitting to acrobatics — but doesn’t want these things to be jobs; she just wants to be good at them.
My son wants to be a professional footballer, preferably for Manchester United. I’m encouraging him to strive for athletic excellence, but talking to him about other football-related jobs for non-players, such as becoming an athletic equipment engineer, a physical therapist, or to work as a sports journalist — you know, to point at squares.
Tracy Brown Hamilton is an Irish/American journalist living in The Netherlands.