The 10 Commandments for working parents

Published April 29, 1998|Updated Sept. 13, 2005

As a working parent, you can find it hard to feel that you're doing either of your jobs as well as you'd like.

If you're devoting lots of time and energy to work, then you worry that you're shortchanging your child.

If you're focusing on family _ making frequent phone calls to the babysitter, using lunch hours to buy arts-and-crafts supplies for weekend projects and hurrying home to help with homework _ then you feel that you're not giving your all at work.

Juggling responsibilities requires constant finessing, and there isn't one right balance that works for everyone. But there are some universal guidelines that can simplify your life.

Follow these 10 commandments, and you're likely to keep your priorities straight, to keep your employer and your family happy, and to find greater pleasure and reward from both.

1. Thou shalt not feel guilty.

Guilt is probably the most useless and harmful emotion that a parent can indulge in. Dwelling on feelings of guilt is not only wasteful of your energies but also destructive to your child. After all, kids pick up on cues, and they look to you to help them frame their experiences.

If you express to your toddler or preschooler your ambivalence about working, she'll play upon those feelings. She'll cry and cling and be unhappy because you're sending her the message that she's supposed to be unhappy.

Parents who feel guilty often end up spoiling their kids by giving in to them and not setting limits, when they could be channeling their energies into raising their children to be the best they can be.

All too often parents today seem to assume that they should feel guilty. We feel guilty because we don't clock as many hours with our kids as our own parents did. Or we feel guilty because we don't prepare proper dinners that include a protein, a starch and a vegetable every night.

But don't assume that just because you're living a 1990s lifestyle rather than a 1950s or 1960s one, you're providing an inferior home life for your child. Don't project your own anxieties onto your child.

2. Thou shalt not be distracted when you're with your child.

Instead of feeling guilty about all the time that you're not spending with your child, make sure the time that you do spend is focused on him.

Once you get home, forget about work or calling your friends _ just sit down and be with your child. Depending on the age of your child or the situation, this may mean that you read a book to him, prepare dinner together or get dinner on the table quickly and just sit around. The key is for your child to know that this is his time to have all of your attention.

3. Thou shalt not overschedule your child.

Unfortunately, overscheduling kids has become a great way for working parents to prevent themselves from feeling guilty.

"It doesn't matter that I'm not home in the afternoon. My child has piano lessons, gymnastics and ballet classes to keep her busy anyway," you may tell yourself.

It used to be that childhood meant free time. But parents today often seem to feel that their children are being enriched only if they're enrolled in a structured program. Kids need down time _ to be reflective, to amuse themselves with drawings, to play with action figures or, sometimes, just to watch television.

Don't plan every minute of your child's time to make yourself feel better. Instead, encourage your child to find interesting things to do during your absences.

4. Thou shalt not neglect your marriage or yourself.

Most working parents don't shortchange their kids, they shortchange themselves by neglecting their marriages and their own needs.

There's no denying that it's incredibly hard to schedule time to talk with your spouse without kid interference, or to find time to exercise, read or get together with your friends.

But it's hard to give and give and give without getting angry. You need to replenish yourself.

Of course, devoting time to meeting your needs and your spouse's needs not only saves your sanity but also provides many benefits for your child. When you have a sense of balance, it translates to more balanced kids. Happy parents are more likely to make for happy children.

5. Thou shalt not separate your child from your work life.

It's essential for a child to feel like the central part of your life. If you disappear for many hours every day and he can't visualize where you are or does not speak to you during the day, then it will be difficult for him to feel that he has a place in your heart during those work hours.

How you can make your child feel included depends a lot on his age and your work situation. In some offices, it's okay to bring a child in once in a while. But even if he simply accompanies you to your workplace on a Sunday, it's important for him to see it, to see the photographs of him that you have displayed, to see his artwork hanging on the wall.

If you can't have your child visit your place of business, be sure to call him every day when he comes home from school.

6. Thou shalt help your child develop self-reliance.

Many working parents worry that they're not involved enough in their kids' day-to-day lives and aren't exerting enough influence over their children's schoolwork, friends and general decisions.

They don't realize, however, that their busyness may be a major plus because it prevents them from interfering too much in their children's lives. Overinvolved parents don't help kids. Children need to take responsibility and can actually benefit from some separation and your letting go.

7. Thou shalt ask for and accept help from your spouse.

Children benefit enormously from the involvement of both parents. So encourage your spouse to be involved, even if you don't completely agree with how he or she does some tasks.

One mother says that when her kids were toddlers, she couldn't stand the outfits her husband chose when he dressed them every morning but that she wasn't about to discourage him from assuming this daily task.

8. Thou shalt be as resourceful about parenting as you are about work.

Parenthood demands that you become a detective and advocate. If your child isn't doing well in school, you need to find out why. If your child is having social problems, you need to investigate the cause.

Every child is a challenge, so don't assume that your child wouldn't have any problems if you didn't work. But it is up to you to help find solutions.

Think about how you communicate with others in your office to get your job done and apply that approach to the people in your child's life. Find effective ways to communicate with your child's caregiver, teachers and guidance counselors.

For example, ask your caregiver to jot down notes during the day so that you know not only what your child had to eat but if she or he was unhappy about something or particularly enjoyed a certain book.

Be sure your school knows that, though you work, you still want to be kept informed.

9. Thou shalt be a willing play-date host.

It's important to know the kids your child is choosing as friends and to see how he or she interacts with them. By making your home a social center, you can peek into your child's social life.

Don't be intrusive, but be observant, and you'll find answers to questions such as: Is your child a leader or a follower? Is he bullying or being bullied? Does she seem to be on the same developmental wavelength as her friends are?

10. Thou shalt befriend the parents of your child's friends.

Why? First, it's like double dating: This way, when your kids get together with their friends, you're also getting together with your own.

Second, parents of your child's friends offer you a network you can rely on _ for car pools, days when the sitter doesn't show up, and comparing notes about teachers, schools and camps.

Chances are, the parents of your child's friends are experiencing many of the same doubts, concerns and fears that you are. When you share your thoughts and solutions, parenting can become easier and more fun.

Miriam Arond is a former executive editor of Child magazine, and Samuel L. Pauker is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York Hospital and in private practice in New York. They are married and have two children.

Distributed by New York Times Special Features