"How was your day Mommy?" - How to Talk to Your Kids About Work

Most articles about working parents focus on the positive and negative effects on children and partners, work-life balance and career progression. I am often drawn to these articles, so I was surprised to find how little information exists about what to share with your children about your job or career.

I am neither a child psychologist nor a researcher, and I believe many of us just wing it – we say what we feel is appropriate for a specific age.  Just as we tailor our comments about money, relationships and death to be age appropriate, it makes sense to do so for discussions around work. Below is my (unscientific) attempt at guidelines that combine conventional wisdom on child development and communication, as well as some personal experience (I am the mother of a high school freshman).

Early Childhood

Infants and babies are acutely aware of and react to a parent’s absence – they do so with crying and smiling. Around the age of two children become vocal with their questions around parental separation, regardless if it is for daycare, preschool or work.  At this stage, children are very literal thinkers.  “Why” and “No” become very powerful words which enable them to create space, claim authority or challenge. “Why does Mommy/Daddy have to go to work?” is a common question, as is “No, don’t go!”

At this stage, toddlers and very young children demand and need our full attention when we answer them. They also need simplicity and honesty. “Because that is what grown-ups do” is usually sufficient. Adding a comforting word also helps, such as “and coming home to you is my favorite part of the day.” Avoid over-explaining or expressing frustration – you want to connect to them and their feelings, and make them feel understood.

Elementary School

Children move from literal to reflective thinkers once they are school age. Questions around work take on a more nuanced form, such as “why don’t you stay home like other Mommies”, “why do you have to work,” or “how much money do you make?”

At this stage, creating context helps children relate to more complex answers, such as “My job is to go to work, just like yours is to go school,” “I go to work so that we can have good food to eat and a nice place to live” or “I make enough for our family and to help Grandma.” Following your answer with “What do you think about that?” gives children an opportunity to express an opinion, thought or feeling and engages them in the conversation.

However, this is not a time to toss out dollar figures (for younger children), complain about co-workers or bosses, or talk about how much you hate your job. This is a time when children mimic the behavior of their parents, whether or not they are aware of it. If you have a joy and happiness about your work and a can-do attitude, kids will take notice. If you have a ‘woe is me’ attitude, they will pick up on that as well. Be especially careful when having work conversations around your partner – little ears hear more than you know! 

Middle School

Children in middle school are highly self-conscious; they crave acceptance and fear exclusion.  They are more inwardly focused, and conversations about work are best when they relate to what the child is experiencing around them. For example, if a child is struggling with a class or a teacher, you can help by telling them about a similar experience at work, how you felt about it and how you resolved it.

At this stage, their world is about themselves and their friends. Share work stories to model situations they are encountering in real life, such as:
• A difficult boss (teacher)
• Problems with a co-worker (classmate)
• Working on a difficult assignment (a research report)
• Struggling to learn something new (algebra)
• Sharing Successes (getting an A+ on a spelling test)

High School

Older children feel more comfortable asking direct questions about work, status, job loss and career paths. Be straightforward and honest, but most of all, do not lecture. If there is one thing I have learned as the parent of a high school freshman, this is it.  Your child will lose interest or tune you out.

This stage of development is a good opportunity to address the trade-offs, benefits and rationale for decisions you made about work, including what aspects of your high school years affected your career choices. Let them know how hard work (or lack of it), getting good grades (or not), playing a sport, pursuing the arts or having a part-time job all affected your own career. Share both the challenges, such as working late to get an assignment done, and the successes, like getting a promotion. What are you glad you did and what do you regret? Follow it up with real examples from work.

When appropriate, talk about tough conversations or decisions at work with your teen, but avoid disparaging co-workers or sharing office gossip. Discuss how going or not going to college affected your career choices.  Talk about the financial repercussions of going to college vs. not. Ask for their feedback. Draw parallels between their experience and your career. Most of all be honest and sincere - high schoolers can sniff out hypocrisy and insincerity like nobody else.  Although they may not show it, high schoolers are absorbing these lessons as they begin to make their own decisions.

As your children move through college and beyond, the conversations you share over the years about work will culminate into ideas and decisions of their own. Keep the conversation going, emphasizing the “conversation” aspect. Your child is now making decisions based not only on your input, but also on their own thoughts and opinions. Keep the door open as your children seek advice from you. Who knows – you might even learn a thing or two from them.


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