How remote working could be changing children’s futures

  • In an era of remote and hybrid work, children are witnessing their parents working more than ever. Is this having a negative effect on kids?

I work a lot. In part due to my own (not-so-balanced) habits, and also because I work with teams across the globe, I admittedly don’t turn off as much as I should. I worry my son notices.

He’s only two, but he sees me on my devices far more often than I’d like – and perhaps far more regularly than he should. Often, right after he wakes up, I’m on my computer; during his dinner, I sometimes find myself checking my work phone, splitting my attention. He’s already learned to say, “Mommy’s working”, and knows to ask Daddy for a snack or to play when I am head down. And with hybrid work becoming the default, he’ll see me at those devices more often than he would if I were entirely office-based.

Parents have worked in front of children for centuries. But as the pandemic has radically altered how we work, ushering in remote set-ups for many employees, some parents – particularly knowledge-workers – are finding their work habits increasingly on display in front of their children in a new way.

Research has already shown that adults’ attitudes and practises can influence a child’s relationship with how they work in the future as well as how they develop – so now, when many working parents aren’t in offices as before, could these effects be exacerbated?

Experts say increased exposure to work can have downsides both for children’s development as well as how they perceive the role of a job in a parent’s life. But there may be hidden upsides, too – and things parents can do to amplify the good over the bad.

‘Your priority is work’

Research conducted in the past decade has shown parents’ attitudes and behaviours around work can have an impact on their children.

In 2017, Ioana Lupu, associate professor at ESSEC Business School, France, published findings on whether children go on to imitate their parents’ work habits in the future. Looking at employees for top law firms in London, Lupu found a substantial number of workers mimicked the patterns of their parents; for instance, those whose parents worked long hours or were breadwinners were likely to replicate that in their own working lives as adults, whether

Family Tree

This story is part of BBC’s Family Tree series, which examines the issues and opportunities parents, children and families face today – and how they’ll shape the world tomorrow. Coverage continues on BBC Future.

Additional research from Stuart Friedman, author of Total Leadership and organisational psychologist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, US, showed children often suffered emotionally when their fathers particularly were very psychologically engaged in their careers. Further, fathers’ split attention due to engagement with their devices also had adverse emotional and even physical impacts.

These studies were conducted pre-pandemic, when parents were often in offices. Now that parents are working in front of children more, due to remote-work set-ups, both researchers believe these effects could be intensified.

Today’s conditions are like ‘take your child to work day’, but every single day, says Friedman – and, he believes, it’s problematic. For some portions of the day, children will be in front of devices or with a book, while a parent’s attention is diverted. When kids see a parent work, they may believe they are doing other tasks with people who matter more.

“You’re taking your most precious asset, which is your attention and you’re diverting it from the most important person in the world to you … They feel it,” says Friedman.

Friedman believes young children may especially experience consequences when parents are “psychologically removed from family life while being physically present”. Lupu agrees, especially with the uptick in device use outside standard working hours.

“By definition, these devices are quite absorbing,” she says. “You may say, ‘I’ll just take five minutes to answer this email, and I’ll be with you – but that rarely happens.” Children, who crave attention, can have negative emotional reactions when parents divert their gaze, she says. “This translates into, ‘I’m not as important right now’, which can be super detrimental, if they’re exposed to that much more than they were.”

Lupu adds that often, children internalise the way parents prioritise work. “Kids tend to think that the activities we spend the most time on are the most important,” she says. “They could easily say, because you are spending so much time on your work and so little time with me, it means your priority is work.”

You’re taking your most precious asset, which is your attention and you’re diverting it from the most important person in the world to you – Stuart Friedman

And the increased blurring of boundaries between work can be “chaotic”, adds Sara Harkness, professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Connecticut, US. “It becomes stressful for parents, but also for children,” she says.

These fuzzy boundaries mean delineations between when parents are able to engage and when they aren’t are unclear. Pre-pandemic, children had spaces when they did not expect parents’ attention, such as school or extra-curricular activities; they also understood that a parent in the office or commuting wasn’t actively available to them. “Now with work happening at home,” says Lupu, “some parents may be present physically, but not mentally.”

Friedman also notes the effect of “spill-over”. When parents have negative interactions to work in front of children, kids may feel that they are the source of distress. If they see a parent anxious and enraged, he says, they may become confused and worried about the cause. “[They may] say, did I do something wrong? … They start feeling insecure.”

There is a gendered component to some of these effects, adds Lupu, wherein negative influence may be more acute from mothers, due to the ingrained expectation that generally women do more housework and care than fathers, so children expect them to be available for tasks like housework and childrearing. Although some fathers are engaging with care more due to home-working, it’s generally more ‘accepted’ for men to draw hard lines in which they are not providing attention to children. However, cautions Friedman, “fathers do not get a ‘free pass’”, as they still have significant influence on how work affects family relationships.

Positive precedents

Working in front of children is not all downside, however. Experts say certain elements of remote work as well as parent behaviour in a home-working situation can be beneficial for a child’s development.

For instance, although spill-over can be detrimental when the display of emotion is negative, the inverse can happen, too, says Friedman. If children observe parents engaging positively with work, using the workplace to display their values or showing that they’re using their “particular gifts and passions for doing good”, this can set a positive precedent for how children form their relationships with work in the future. Children may not make these associations immediately, he says, but over time, the observations can be significant.

“It can be so valuable and important for kids to be present and see their parents navigating the values and engagement in their work,” agrees Kim Ferguson, dean of graduate and professional studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. A child observing a parent’s positive work ethic can also be a strong influence throughout their life, at multiple stages, adds Tricia Hanley, director of Sarah Lawrence College’s Child Development Institute.

Additionally, the rise of remote and hybrid work has also coincided with increased flexibility. This comes with an upside, says Harkness, especially when working parents can be present for lunch, attend an extra-curricular event or even give a child a snack when they’re hungry – something a structured 9-to-5 office job hasn’t traditionally afforded. “This sets a precedent that you can be involved in your child’s life, even if you’re also working.”

‘Mom murmuring in the closet’

As work has shifted, boundaries have become increasingly difficult to draw – but finding a way to pencil in these hard lines may be the key to mitigating negative effects.

Lupu calls this approach “segmentation” – creating “rules and routines around space and time” when parents and children are together. This could mean designating a physical space for work, if possible – “a place where when Mommy is there, Mommy’s working”. Friedman agrees: “It creates that buffer, that private space. That’s why I’m all for people even working in closets… [Children] might hear Mom murmuring [from] the closet, but it’s because she needs to be in private now”, and when she’s done, she will come out and engage.

A large component of segmentation is also creating boundaries around device use after a certain time, so parents can devote full attention to children.

Lupu says creating routines is paramount; in ways, putting these structures in place mimics the hard boundaries between work and care that kids had pre-pandemic, due to scheduled activities, like school.

Additionally, Friedman, Lupu, Ferguson and Hanley all agree parents need to actively initiate conversations about these changes and new behaviours, whether their children seem too young to internalise these environmental cues, or if they’re old enough to be explicitly conscious of parents’ patterns.

“It’s important to talk to [children] about the different types of work they do, what attention it involves, why it’s valuable and important and why they do it,” says Ferguson. “It’s fine if why they do it is to make money for the family to eat – but then talk and say, ‘I don’t enjoy my work, but this is why I do it’ or ‘I do enjoy this part of it’.”

It can be so valuable and important for kids to be present and see their parents navigating the values and engagement in their work – Kim Ferguson

For children of all ages, Ferguson adds parents should also communicate why they’re making short- and long-term decisions about work: for instance, letting a child know to play quietly because they are in an important meeting.

However, each expert stressed that remote work isn’t ‘dooming’ kids, especially because each child has their own personality and way of processing what they see. Lupu says that although many people in her research parroted their parents’ working habits, some respondents were actively pushing back against poorly modelled behaviour, and choosing to approach work in a different, healthier way.

Ferguson says the best thing parents can do is understand this newfound set-up will become the norm, at least for now, and the key is finding ways to make it work for their particular environment. The issue is so new, though, that there’s not a lot of guidance around how to do this, and Hanley notes parents may face different issues, depending on gender, family structure and socioeconomic status.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter whether parents are at home or in the office – children mould themselves in their caretakers’ attitudes, actions and decisions. Communication and boundaries aren’t just meant for remote employees – these precedents set up a model for how kids will build their relationships with work in the future, and shape whom they become, years down the line.

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