The attitude you have as a parent is what your kids will learn from, more than what you tell them. They don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are. –Jim Henson
Our job as parents is to equip our children to have productive, happy and meaningful lives. The best way to do so is by role-modeling the values, priorities and actions to which we hope they will aspire.
Someday, and sooner than we think, our kids will be making choices about their careers, spouses and lives. I hope my son learns:
- 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
- To understand the relative importance of work and family and of working towards a balanced set of priorities.
I once heard a great quote that “the best way to teach your son to be a man, is to be a good man and let him watch.”
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 the following four lessons through by my actions and by how I talk about work when he is around.
1. Work is for money, and money is important.
That’s why they call it work. And providing financially for our families is something that dads are still primarily responsible for (despite recent headlines, dads are the primary/sole income-earners in 85% of US dual-parent families). While we need to keep money in its proper perspective, 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.
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 only 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.
I’d rather Nick understand that work is not JUST a chore, and not JUST about money. Right now, he wants to be a Jedi, baseball player, geologist, waiter, astronaut and circus performer. He doesn’t aspire to these jobs just because of earning potential. He cares about doing fun, fulfilling tasks. I want to continue to encourage that because…
2. 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 business professor, I’m a teacher for older kids in college who are studying how to be good managers. He also understands that I write on the internet about trying to be a good dad, and I occasionally do projects for companies.
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 to see what I do and meet the people I work with. Last year, Nick and my wife 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.
But mine isn’t the only workplace my son sees—he’s a big fan of his mother’s career as well.
3. My wife’s career is as important as mine
One day, I hope Nick will get married, and I want him to value not just his own career, but also the career of a future spouse. This is not a lesson that is taught effectively through words. I hope that, by seeing how supportive I am of Amy (and she is of me), he will seek out a supportive partner and that he will value his spouse’s career as much as his own.
My wife’s idiosyncratic career as a theater actress poses some interesting work-family challenges. But I do my best to support Amy in her career because I love her and want to support her, but also because I want to signal to Nick that both our careers are to be equally valued (Sheryl Sandberg would be proud).
So, when Amy is rehearsing a new show and working really long hours, I pick up the slack at home; Amy does the same for me when my work spikes. On the rare occasions she travels for work (for example, to Boston this past holiday season for How the Grinch Stole Christmas!), I make sure that Nick and I travel out to see her. When it is age-appropriate, Nick sees his mom perform (Grinch, Peter Pan, etc.); when Amy directs youth theater, we see those shows (Nick enjoys seeing her mom get flowers from the cast as a thank-you on closing night!).
I’ll often help Nick make something for Amy’s dressing room before a new show, so he can be involved in supporting her. Finally, I will take him to visit mom before or after shows backstage and in her dressing room. Being backstage at a big Broadway theater is really exciting, and I’m really happy Nick gets to experience this.
Of course, our work-family juggle is not for everyone. I hope Nick and futurespouse figure out a balance that works for them, and that he understands that successful families can have many different divisions of labor (more traditional, single-earner households are obviously fine, as long as they are consciously chosen). Nick also gets to see successful marriages with different arrangements than ours through our friends and extended families.
No matter which career he chooses, I want Nick to properly value work and his future family. (As a work-family balance advocate and professional, I’d be remiss if I didn’t try to impart this lesson). I hope that, by seeing how I try to juggle work and family, he sees a role model for himself- just like I did when observing my father.
4. Work has its place, but is never more important than family
My father worked for many years in important capacities for the Office of Child and Family Services of New York State. His job was demanding, and very important- helping troubled kids and getting them back on the right track. For several years, he ran a number of juvenile delinquent group homes throughout NYC and was on call 24/7 in case of emergencies.
But my father was a very active, involved dad. He supported my mother as she went to college and grad school part time and became a teacher. He managed my little league teams, and we regularly took family vacations. He made a good living, but we would never be considered rich.
But I had all I needed—no matter how demanding or inconvenient his work, I knew my dad was there for me. He never had to tell me about his work-family priorities. His actions made them very clear.
I am lucky to have had a great role model. I hope I can be the same for Nick. I try to signal the importance of family through my actions. My flexible job gives me the opportunity to arrange my schedule to spend a lot of time with Nick; in that, I know I am far more fortunate than most dads.
But I have definitely turned down opportunities so that I could be present for Amy and Nick- I no longer teach in EMBA programs, limit my consulting and other work opportunities, and attend fewer conferences and professional networking events.
While I’m not the coach, I help out with a lot with Nick’s little league teams, and try to spend as much unstructured time with him as I can. Wii LEGO Star Wars, backyard light-saber battles, bike rides, pretending to have an interest in Minecraft, doing everyday errands together, just hanging out and talking- these are all parts of my everyday. I fight the impulse (although I sometimes fail) to let work time bleed into family time and get sucked into work through emails and smartphones. Everyday time is so important.
I think if we are asking the right questions, pursuing the right goals, and are mindful about how our actions will be perceived by our children, we are doing the most important work of being good fathers. And I can’t think of a better thing to be.
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. To get there:
- I try to spend quantities of quality time with my boy.
- I try to put work aside during family time.
- I am trying to build a childhood of memories for Nick in which he will remember the unconditional love of his dad.
- I try to be a good role model. Especially for the values I feel are important.
Life and work sometimes get in the way. I don’t always succeed. None of us can. But we can all try. And the trying is the most important part.
I guess most of all, I hope Nick sees that I am trying. If he does, I think he may absorb these lessons.
—photo by Schmarty/Flickr
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