Children object to work eating up dad time

Lyndall Strazdins
July 4, 2017
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

Fathers struggle to strike a work-family balance. According to some studies, many find it tougher than even mothers do. Women also complain about dads overworking - particularly when they're left holding the baby or if family commitments mean they can't compete at work with "long-hours men". But how do children feel about dads' jobs?

We asked thousands of children between 10 and 13 years old. Their responses are a wake-up call to governments who often regard fathers' work simply in relation to family income but rarely in relation to family time. Unlike mothers, fathers have received little effective consideration from workplaces or policy makers to help them achieve family-friendly work.

That oversight is a big problem for children, our study finds. It shows that work often encroaches unacceptably on children's relationships with their dads. Indeed childhood is at odds with many aspects of the evolving 24/7 economy.

Children accept that dads need to work

It's not that children are unrealistic and think dad should be around for them all the time. They accept him going to work. But they don't like the job getting in the way of special times with him - weekends and evenings. They object when work so stresses him out that he's not much fun as a parent or when it's so inflexible that he can't be there for them at important times.

We found that few of the thousands of children we surveyed wished that their father didn't work at all. Most valued fathers' employment. They accepted that it restricted their dads' time. They considered jobs to be important and a benefit to their family. But there came a tipping point when the demands of their fathers' working life made them protective of their time with him. Children don't want their dads to work weekends, evenings or nights. They also feel stress when their dad's work is high pressured, and they object when their fathers don't have flexibility around work times.

These constraints on time with dad - about which children expressed discontent - also corresponded with declines in children's estimation of how close they felt to their fathers. That's a concern because a large body of evidence shows that close relationships between fathers and their children are fundamental to children's wellbeing - their identity, developmental achievement and long-term health.

Overall, the findings reinforce evidence from elsewhere that children view time with their fathers as central, special and unique, especially time together on weekends, whereas long weekday hours are viewed as part of the job, up to a point.

Study design

Our study paired the work practices and hours of more than 2,500 Australian fathers with the views of their children, aged 10 to 13. The fathers were all part of intact families. Separated dads and their children, who may face an even more varied set of work-family dilemmas, were not included in the study.

We found that problematic workplace demands were not confined to fathers in high pressure, long-hours, high-earning jobs. Our study particularly highlighted concerns among the children of low-income fathers. They objected when their fathers' work was scheduled on evenings, night and weekends and where start or stop times were inflexible. Children of such fathers are caught between a rock and a hard place. As a 16 year-old said in another study, "I really can't pick because we need the money, but I also need my parents."

Boys tended to object more than girls do to work demands on their fathers. One possible explanation is that boys may look at their fathers' working lives and see a future that they don't wish for themselves.

Many fathers have difficulty securing flexible daytime jobs that produce sufficient income for their families. Yet family research into labor markets tends to focus on how workplace practices disadvantage women in terms of pay and employment. Little research has tested how the requirements of fathers' jobs affect children's experiences. By looking at fathers, we have shown that the same work-time processes that underpin gender inequality also cause problems for children.

Work practices that trouble children are widespread

We also found that fathers' concerns about particular work practices or schedules are broadly similar to their children's. Yet the work practices that cause problems for both were widespread in the families we studied. Nearly half of the fathers worked more than 45 hours a week, one quarter regularly worked weekends, and a fifth worked evenings, nights, or irregular or rotating schedules. Two in five worked in jobs considered to be high pressured, and more than a third lacked flexibility around when they started or stopped. Half of the fathers missed family events because of work, and about a fifth described their family time as more pressured and less fun because of their jobs.

Work practices are making life unhappy for many dads and their children. But we rarely hear about the issue, and policy does little to alleviate it. The problem tends to be left to individual fathers to resolve. Yet many of them have no real choice. Instead, they struggle with the dilemma of how to earn enough for their families, stay competitive in the job market and care for their children in the way that they - and the kids - would like.

The widespread nature of the problem - and the shared concerns of fathers, children and (we know from other studies) mothers - suggests that policy makers should seek solutions in the operation of the labor market, rather than leaving fathers to push back against workplace expectations, and, if they do, take the risk that they will pay a high price.

Policy implications

Government should help business shift from outdated expectations and requirements of their workforce to build a thriving economy through a work-family collaboration.

Practical implications

Employers should support fathers to be the fathers they want to be, while understanding (and empowering more fathers to challenge) the wider constraints that exist.


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