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How you feel about your job affects how well you parent your kids

7 min

Here’s something that sounds obvious but that parents might not think about: How you feel about work and your experiences on the job affects how you parent. And that, in turn, can influence your child’s development.

Developmental psychologist Maureen Perry-Jenkins and her colleagues found that a job that offers autonomy and support for a parent in a child’s first year of life is linked to better cognitive and social outcomes and mental health for that child six years down the road.

“People spend 40 hours a week at work, and that experience affects you and your mental health, your physical health, everything,” said Perry-Jenkins, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. That, in turn, affects how supportive and responsive a parent is. The results are outlined in Perry-Jenkins’s book “Work Matters.”

Work-family researchers often focus on studying schedules, parental leave, sick leave and overtime, rather than the actual work experience. Perry-Jenkins’s team also made a couple of other less-common research decisions: They chose to include fathers and to concentrate on low-income employees.

Stew Friedman, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, found results similar to Perry-Jenkins’s findings among business professionals. About two decades ago, he and Jeff Greenhaus of Drexel University looked at the “inner experience” of 900 workers: how these employees valued career and family, how much they were distracted by work at home and how much control they had over their work conditions.

Then they examined how the children were doing using the Child Behavior Checklist, which assesses emotional and behavioral problems such as anxiety, depression, aggression, social issues and attention issues. They found that children were better off when both mothers and fathers found work to be a source of challenge, creativity and enjoyment. Fathers whose job enhanced their sense of self and mothers whose jobs gave them a sense of authority also had mentally healthier children. This research informed the design and development of Friedman’s Total Leadership program, the goal of which is to help workers improve their performance in all parts of life by creating greater harmony among them.

The idea that a parent’s inner experiences at work would affect how they parent is “not that complicated, once you think about it,” said Friedman, the co-author of Parents Who Lead” and the director of Wharton’s Work/Life Integration Project. But “as you go through the grind of daily life, just trying to get through it in as human a way as you can, most people don’t take the time to step back and think about those aspects.”

Perry-Jenkins’s team followed 370 families who were having their first child from pregnancy through the child’s first grade of school. All of the participants were low-wage workers in jobs that are usually considered less desirable than white-collar positions, such as nursing aides, food service workers, beauticians, truck drivers, laborers and maintenance workers.

Mothers and fathers who had a sense of control and efficacy at work during the first year of their child’s life were more responsive and supportive parents, and they had children with better social skills and fewer behavioral problems. Workers who lacked a sense of autonomy at work were overreactive or withdrawn parents, and their children lacked social skills and had more behavior problems.

How the fathers felt about their jobs mattered as much as how the mothers felt about their jobs. “The literature and everything we have out there is about mothers, mothers, mothers, mothers, mothers,” Perry-Jenkins said. “Fathers can have as positive and as negative impacts on their kids’ developmental outcomes from their work. That’s really important, because I think we make [work and parenting] a women’s issue.”

All the parents clearly loved their children, Perry-Jenkins said. “But that didn’t translate into good parenting. That didn’t translate into good mental health. It just meant, ‘I love this kid, but there’s these other things that I can’t access to be able to take care of this child, because life’s too hard.’”

The researchers found that companies can take relatively small steps to improve the experience of their workers. For example, Perry-Jenkins said, rather than forbidding workers to leave factory or warehouse floors in the midafternoon, companies should let them check in with their children after school. These adjustments are easy to find if bosses would just ask workers what they need. “Most of them could come up with a way to do the job better and a way to make the day better,” she said.

Perry-Jenkins thinks businesses have a corporate responsibility to provide workers with more positive experiences. “We’re the richest country in the world, and yet our data on positive child outcomes is consistently declining compared to other nations,” she said. “Perhaps our approach to supporting new working parents during the sensitive first year of child development could change that trajectory in the positive direction.”

When asked how parents can become more aware of how their job affects their children, Friedman said the first step is to recognize that “it’s impossible to fully compartmentalize or segment the different parts of your life.” There will be spillover, positive or negative, from one to the other.

But it can be managed, he added, if parents focus on what their children need — being aware of developmental needs and asking children directly when they are old enough. Participants in his Total Leadership program “talk to their kids about their mutual needs and expectations. And that often results in people learning more about how their work affects their kids.”

Once parents know what their kids need, they can experiment with different ways of integrating job and family. For example, an employee might suggest they try leaving early a couple of afternoons a week to take care of matters outside the office, which would allow them to perform their job better. After a few weeks, the employee and boss would decide how the experiment was going. “That framing is very different than the traditional work-life balance conversation, which is much more of a one-way demand as opposed to an innovation that’s intended to make things better for all of us,” Friedman said.

Parenting coach and clinical social worker Mercedes Samudio said that, when parents see research that ties parenting to other aspects of their lives, it’s important to pay attention to their first reaction. “‘How did I feel when I saw that information? Did I relate to it? Did it feel like it was me?’”

If so, knowing that how you feel about your job affects the way you parent isn’t enough, said Samudio, founder of Shame-Proof Parenting and author of a book by the same name. “I don’t agree with, ‘Once you know better, you do better.’ I agree with, ‘Once you know better, you can make better choices.’ You can be better aware. You can even choose to add more support to your life.”

Most parents can’t quit their jobs, and they certainly can’t quit parenting. But they can consider which aspects of their jobs and parenting are especially stressful and look for ways to gain support, Samudio said. Then, as Friedman suggests, they can experiment with different approaches.

Friedman said that millennials especially have been exploring these issues. “They want a different kind of world, and they’re working to create it.” The pandemic, too, has prompted reassessment for many parents, he said. “That has resulted in just a great flowering of experimentation that I think is going to lead us to new models of work.”