The Workplace In Children’s Lives: Problem or Promise?
Editor of Mindworks for the Star Tribune
Thank you and good morning. I’m delighted to be here today as we celebrate your important accomplishments on behalf of children, their parents and our community.
I’ve had this rare experience for 15 years as Mindworks editor at the Star Tribune. I’ve been immersed in the voices of children and teens who represent a vast spectrum of circumstance and perception. I’ve read about 3/4 of a million letters from young people writing about scores of topics ranging from family to education to sports to popularity to violence to death and God. They’ve taught me a great deal about their lives. But they’ve also done much more than that. Anytime you ask young people to tell you about their lives, they will also reflect the lives of the adults around them and capture the character of the society in which we live. Listening to the children has changed me profoundly as a parent, a worker, a citizen, a human being, and I feel richly blessed.
One of the key lessons I’ve learned is what should be an obvious one about inter-connectedness. We have a tendency in this culture to compartmentalize everything, and it’s an unfortunate proclivity. What one realizes when listening to children is that everything is of a piece. The workplace is connected to the home and the home to the workplace. They’re both connected to the community’s educational, civic, religious, even street life. Look at the collage of societal structure: every piece is influenced by and influences the others. And the children don’t inhabit a separate world. They are affected by all the elements of this society.
Despite their youth, the children know about the workplace. They learn about it primarily from their parents, the media, the shop clerks with whom they interact, and increasingly, from their own entry into the work world at early ages.
Their perceptions about work run the gamut, from whimsy to incisive insight.
One of my all-time favorite letters is from an 11-year old girl who was answering the question, “What is your greatest aspiration in life?” She wrote that she wants to be a secretary when she grows up. The reason why? She would just love to put people on hold. I think about that poor dear every time I deal with voice mail.
Alana, 16, wrote: “My desire to obtain a job began at age 6. I saw a great money-making opportunity in retail but my parents informed me I could not sell my sister.”
Lauren, age 6, wrote: “When I grow up, I want to be a frozen food manager just like my dad. The reason why is because then I get to be around ice cream every day.”
But by no means are their perceptions merely charming. They also nail dead-on the most serious work/family issues of the day.
Erin, age 8: “The best thing about working is my mom gets paid lots of money. The worst thing is she’s always at work.”
Annie, age 11: “Sometimes moms and dads work too much, leaving children home alone for the day without anyone to talk to. Kids don’t deserve that.”
A 10-year-old: “Once my mom came home from work really mad because the people who worked with her were being mean to her. She started yelling at me and my dad because she was so worked up about it. I would never want that to happen to me.”
A teen: “I understand why my parents love their jobs. What I don’t understand is why they bothered to have me if they’re never going to be with me.”
What happens in the work place is reflected in the home. The children share in the joy of a parent’s promotion or of a work project completed and well-done. They reap the economic benefits of their parents’ efforts. They learn about the largeness of the world from their parents’ involvement with work. They observe the role of work in developing a sense of individual worth and contribution. They also see parents who bring work home, sometimes daily, and in the words of one 11-year-old, when parents do that, they “shut the door in the face of their child.” They overhear parents who are concerned about the security of their jobs, they hear about office politics and rumors, and they suffer when parents can’t drop their work woes at the door and instead take their frustrations out on everyone, including the dog. They grieve when parents sell the family cabin, not because they can’t afford the money, but because they won’t afford the time.
I’ve read stories from children describing what it’s like when their parents get laid off, describing the depression of parents suddenly cast adrift. They describe how they’ve handed their parents their hard-saved ten dollars from their piggy banks or have refused their allowance as they try to make Mom or Dad feel better.
The children are very much connected to the workplace. It’s that connection that makes your efforts to acknowledge, respect and honor family life so important.
So often the most profound realities are found in simple, universal images we’ve known for a long time. I’ve especially been thinking about the ripple effect, how we have to operate on faith that our efforts have a life beyond us that we might never know.
I had an experience last spring that illuminated the concept once again.
I was flying home from Philadelphia and serendipity struck. For some unknown reason, I was bumped up to first class. Now for some of you, that might not be such a big deal, but I’ve never flown first class before. I’m a bit of a white-knuckled flyer, and the first thing that struck me was the psycho-logy of the deal. In first class, I just felt so safe. Because of my luck, I ended up sitting by a young insurance executive from Philly, a guy in his thirties who was dressed impeccably and was full of that East Coast confidence that is at once so audacious and so likable.
I was reading Mindworks essays, as usual; and he became curious about what I was doing and so I explained the feature to him. “What do the children say?” he wanted to know. I told him some of their views on violence and media and education, and then I explained that one of the primary themes I’ve seen in recent years is children yearning for their parents’ presence. They yearn for parents who are absent because of divorce or abandonment and increasing numbers ache with yearning for parents whose lives are consumed by work and careers.
He began talking then about his own family. He had two children, 18 months and 3 years old, who were cared for by a Colombian nanny who didn’t speak English, which made it tough if she had to call 911, and one of the children has had two broken arms under her care, but they think both incidents were accidental, and I let that all go by. He also said that his wife, who is an attorney, took four months off work after each of the babies was born.
I said, “That’s wonderful. How much time did you take?”
I wish I had a Polaroid picture of that man’s face. He looked at me like someone whose brain has been struck by a thunderbolt. His eyes were wide open, his mouth agape. He stared full at me, and finally he stammered, “I can’t believe you asked me that question.” And he said again, “I can’t believe you asked me that question.” No defensiveness, just shock.
“No,” I said, “What you can’t believe is that you never asked yourself that question, and your wife never asked you that question, and your co-workers, your friends, your religious community, your relatives, no one who knows you ever asked you, a young father, that question.”
“I can’t believe you asked me that question,” he said again.
We continued talking about these issues for a long time, and in the course of conversation we discussed the chasm between parents and non-parents. He told me a lovely story that when he became a father, he called his employees who were parents together and apologized. If he was ever harsh or irritable or unfair when parents needed to leave work to attend a teacher conference or a ball game or recital or had missed work because of a child’s illness, he was sorry. He wasn’t yet a parent, he just hadn’t understood.
He was heading on to Omaha, and as I got off the plane, his last words to me were, “I can’t believe you asked me that question.”
I’m glad I did. Because given the kind of man he seemed to be, I picture this scenario. The next time an employee or a colleague is an expectant father, maybe he’ll be the one to take that man aside and say, “How much time are you going to take when the baby arrives, when this new, vulnerable, beautiful creature for whom you are utterly responsible joins your family? How much time are you going to take to immerse yourself in this precious baby and discover who he is and who you are now and who your wife is now that he’s here? How much time?” And the ripples move on.
Ripples are what you’re creating through your efforts. Every time you treat parents with dignity and respect, you send out those little waves. When you educate your workers as to children’s needs; when you give them options of flex-time, part-time with benefits, job sharing, high-quality on-site day care, leaves-of-absence, and time to volunteer in schools; when you advocate for paid parental leave, which the parents need and the babies deserve and which simply has to happen soon, the ripples go out. The parents take those little waves home with them and home life is different. It’s more relaxed and enjoyable, and the children benefit and so do you, because whatever happens at home comes into the workplace. And those employees and their children interact with others at schools and in the community and the ripples you’ve created have an ongoing life. Beyond that, you represent corporations, organizations and agencies of great stature in this community and other businesses, organizations and agencies look to you as exemplars. What you do changes what they do.
Of course, the waves continue beyond the present and into the future.
We adults are so concerned about the future work force not being up to snuff. We scream about how the children can’t read, write, compute, think. We throw up our arms in anguish and concern, wondering what’s to become of society, what’s to become of us. And the children hear our alarm and they are hurt. Certainly these are challenging times for a host of reasons, but what we forget is we adults have the power to shape the future through our treatment of the children. I’m convinced that one of the primary obstacles to many children’s success at school is the domination of the workplace over the home.
I was speaking with a superintendent from an affluent suburban school district a little over a year ago, and we were exchanging our concerns. For those of you who don’t work with children and families or don’t routinely converse with those who do, you might not know the depth of the crisis those people see. I asked the superintendent if maybe he felt things were changing, even getting slightly better for children, and he said, “Oh, no.” He said he’d never seen so many needy kindergartners and first-graders entering his schools as he was seeing now, children not of poverty but of means. He said he sees children coming to school so starved for parental attention and affection he doesn’t know how his staff is going to teach them. What they need is the attention, the affection, the time that a parent is supposed to provide long before the children enter those classrooms. Instead the parents are too often devoured by careers and the pursuit of things to give their children what they both need and deserve.
If we want a productive future, what we must do now is to design the work world and work attitudes in such a way that the children can still have what they need and deserve. Children who feel secure in their parents’ love; who feel that they have primacy in their parents’ lives over work, money and things; children who sense a connectedness and a balance between their family lives and the world out there, can then view the workplace not as an enemy or a rival, but as a goal, a dream, a promise.
Children like that will become productive, creative, visionary, positive, energetic adults, and those qualities will be expressed in tomorrow’s workplace. We forget. We’re shaping the children and by extension the future by how we construct the world today. You are being honored for being among those wise people who understand these crucial connections.
Whatever we do, the children are getting messages and making their own decisions about how they want the future to be.
Amanda, 12, wrote: “It’s really important to like your job, but my dad is really busy and I just wish he was home more. It seems like he’s hardly ever home for dinner some weeks and it would just be nice if it wasn’t like that. When I grow up, I’ll be home for dinner every night.”
A different Amanda, age 11: “When I am an adult, I want a job where my boss cares as much about what my family needs as the business. Some of the things I might need are flexible work hours, day care at my job and a working office at home. To get these things, my boss and I would have to trust each other a lot.”
They see so much, they know a great deal. We need to listen to them.
And we need to do something else. We need, whether in the workplace or home or schools, to celebrate the children.
Celebrate the children. That’s such a facile phrase, I almost wince when I say it. I feel like I should have Shirley Temple dimples and launch into a verse of “Good Ship Lollipop” or go into the greeting card business. It’s just too trite. But I’ve thought a lot about what it means to celebrate the children.
On the one hand, we simply delight in their presence and celebrate the fact that we share our world with them. It’s so easy for me these days as my youngest is 4 and everything about him is adorable. His elbows are adorable. His pictures of pirates are adorable. He’s even adorable when he’s naughty. But the charm of that is diminishing, month by month. It’s so easy to celebrate the little ones because they are so dear.
I also have three teenagers, the oldest of whom just went to college. Celebrate the children takes on a whole new meaning when you share your household with adolescents. It can be done. You celebrate their energy, their quirky senses of humor, their struggles to emerge as the adults they are to become. We celebrate the children because they are here.
But a while back, it dawned on me there’s another way to celebrate the children and the source of the idea was a photograph published in our newspaper. It was a wonderful picture and I hope many of you saw it.
The occasion was Bobby McFerrin and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra visiting an elementary school to teach the children about music. And Tom Sweeney, the Star Tribune photographer, caught this amazing moment.
The orchestra was in the middle of Mozart, Figaro I think, and this six-year-old girl got up to dance, right smack in front of the orchestra. She apparently wasn’t invited up to dance, she was moved to dance. She’s dancing like a dervish and the photographer has caught her mid-twirl. Her hair is sticking out around her and her arms are akimbo and she has on one of these delightful little girl dresses that is billowing out around her as she dances. And you look, and below the dress you see these impossibly-skinny little six-year-old legs, little stick legs, and on these little legs she has on stockings like the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz wore, big bold stripes with this delicate little dress. It’s as if her legs are saying, “We might be skinny, but we are definitely here.” One of the boldest fashion statements I’ve seen in a long while. On her feet she has on sneakers with holes in the toes. And she’s dancing like a dervish.
And there’s Bobby McFerrin, hip, cool Bobby McFerrin with his dredlocks and spectacles and jeans and his sneakers, and he’s still conducting the orchestra, he still has the baton in his hand, but he’s looking over his shoulder at the little girl dancing, and he’s dancing. Bobby McFerrin is dancing to Mozart with a six-year-old girl.
And then you see three musicians, in the background, all men, all dressed in their somber artistic black, and they’re still playing Mozart, but they’re looking around their music stands at the little girl dancing, and they’re smiling.
I looked at that photo, and I saw a picture of consummate joy, of spontaneity, of innocence, of the generations reveling in one another. I saw a picture of what childhood is supposed to be. And then it hit me: that’s the other way we celebrate the children. We adults must create the music so the children can dance, and when the children dance, all of us live richer and more meaningful lives.
Your work on behalf of families in the workplace adds notes and nuance to that music. You are to be commended for your efforts.
I thank you for what you’ve already accomplished. I wish you the very best in the exciting work yet to come.
For all its charm, this is a blunt, hard-hitting speech. Our children have, in their own voices and through the pages of the Star Tribune’s Mindworks, sent us a powerful message: What we do in business affects their lives. It is not enough to pay lip service to family and to children. As Snow reminds us, “If we want a productive future, what we must do now is to design the work world and work attitudes in such a way that the children can still have what they need and deserve. Children ... can then view the workplace not as an enemy or a rival, but as a goal, a dream, a promise.”
Through The Work<->Life NetworkSM, MCCR assists businesses as they meet the challenge of insuring that parents can do well at work and do well at home.
The Working Family Support Awards
The Working Family Support Awards are given annually to businesses and organizations which work with the Working Family Resource Center (WFRC) to provide education at the work sites for working families.
WRFC is a business/education partnership sponsored by the St. Paul Public Schools Community and Family Education Department. Its mission is to educate and support working families at the work sites in order to enhance the quality of life and promote personal development and interpersonal effectiveness. Services include work/life seminars, a newsletter Life Balance Digest and work/life consultations. WRFC is active in The Work«Life NetworkSM which is facilitated by MCCR. For more information about WFRC, call 651-293-5330.
Ceridian Corporation, which sponsored the Awards Breakfast, is also an active participant in The Work<->Life NetworkSM and a member of the Minnesota Center for Corporate Responsibility.
About the Author
Misti Snow has been editor of the award-winning Star Tribune Mindworks feature since its beginnings in 1983. During that time, she has read nearly three-quarters of a million Mindworks letters from children. In Mindworks children and teens tackle topics as timely and timeless as family, divorce, education, sports, beauty, violence, popularity and death. On average, 7,000 to 8,000 young people write to Mindworks every month. Some months the volume approaches 14,000 letters, all of which are read and considered. (The Star Tribune is a member company of MCCR.)
She is the author of Take Time To Play Checkers, a compilation of Mindworks essays and her commentary.
The recipient of a Bush Leadership Fellowship, Snow is taking a 15-month leave-of absence from the Star Tribune to do graduate work in liberal studies at Hamline University.
She has four children and step-children from 5 to 19 years of age.
This speech was given at the 1998 Working Family Support Awards Breakfast on September 23, 1998, sponsored by the Working Family Resource Center and Ceridian Corporation.