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When parents bring worry home from work, their children may start to get worried, too


WHEN I BROUGHT my daughter to work with me -- in an attempt to demonstrate that I am not just gone when she gets home from school but am out being a role model for her -- she asked to meet the person who could fire me.

I introduced her to the gentleman who holds that awful power, and he told her in very reassuring tones that I have not given him cause to exercise it, that I was a very good employee.

"Yeah, well, we don't think she is such a great mother," my 9-year-old responded in that wry, deadpan of hers.

She was rewarded with the laughter of grown-ups, which I am sure is what she wanted. And I whisked her out of the office with some nervous laughter of my own.

I long ago gave up any hope that I would earn plaudits, merit raises or compensatory time off for the job of mother, and I have learned not to take my children's criticism of me to heart. After all, they can't fire me.

But a report by the Families and Work Institute in New York gave me an unpleasant view from the bottom -- how children view their working parents. It was unexpected and painful, kind of like overhearing your fellow employees complain about you from behind another cubicle.

As part of a workplace study, Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the institute, planned to ask the children of the workers, "If you could do one thing to improve family life, what would it be?" But first she asked the parents what they anticipated their children would say. Most expected their kids would wish for more time with them.

"The kids [ages 6 to 18] did talk about more time. But, by and large, what the kids wanted was their parents to come home less wired, less in a bad mood, less keyed up, less tired," Ms. Galinsky said.

That our children are so sensitive to our moods should be no surprise -- the emotions of parents and their children are hard-wired together. But Ms. Galinsky's detailed questioning of the workers and their children revealed that the children knew not just that their parents were upset after a day at the office -- but that they knew why.

"We went back to the parents and asked if they talked about things at work that were troubling them. Some said yes, some no. But the kids knew, to one degree or another, exactly what was going on."

The children could tell, Ms. Galinsky said, by the way their parents hit the front door what kind of a mood they were in. And they had developed their own methods to cope.

"They could tell by the footsteps on the porch, by the way turn of the doorknob, by the way their parents set their things down in the hall, what kind of a day it had been."

One child told the researchers that he would pick a fight right away because he knew that one was inevitable and he might as well get it out of the way. Another said she went upstairs and took a bath, letting the water run behind the closed door until she could tell by her parents' voices that they had calmed down.

When we pack our troubles in our briefcases and take them home at the end of a work day, we are doing what our children do: Saving our truest feelings for the people we feel safest with.

There is no sin in that, except perhaps in its unconsciousness. How could we think that they would not feel us vibrate as we arrive home from work? How could we leave them alone to figure out why? And worry?

"We need to find ways to make the transition," said Ms. Galinsky. "To leave it in the car, to switch into a child-centered mode from a work-centered mode."

But if we cannot shed our work worries on the ride home, we must find the words to explain our bad mood to our children. To tell them that it isn't their fault, that we are not about to lose our job, that people get in bad moods sometimes.

And we need to explain something else about our work.

"It is important to bring up the issue of work with your children and say something positive," said Ms. Galinsky. "We need to say what we like about it, and what is interesting. Why we do it. After all, we are introducing our kids to the work world."

This is not a simple matter or an unimportant one. From where our children sit, it must look as though we get all dressed up and leave them just so we can come home hours later in a bad mood.

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