When Linda Waite goes home at night, she can apply lessons from the workday to her family life.
The most important advice? "Put your family first when you are home," Waite said. "Tend to family needs before you move on, even if you have to work more that night."
Waite is co-director of the new Sloan 500 Family Study at the University of Chicago's Alfred P. Sloan Center on Parents, Children and Work. Her younger daughter is a 17-year-old high-school student, and an older daughter is married, with one child.
Waite's advice might sound simple enough, but carrying it out presents enough challenges to prompt the Sloan 500 Family Study. It examines - surprise - 500 families across the nation, split into two groups: married and working parents with adolescent children and married and working parents raising kindergartners.Family surveys Waite and co-director Barbara Schneider, both PhDs, conducted surveys and interviews with mothers, fathers and children. The families were asked to participate in a time-diary study, designed to explore how parents and kids spend their time in a typical week and how they feel emotionally when interacting with co-workers, friends and each other.
Waite and Schneider are writing a book about the study and hope to find a publisher by next fall.
Some of their findings include:
Most mothers schedule their work hours and even job location around family needs. Fathers tend to schedule their work hours around job requirements.
Most mothers prefer to work part-time, while dads prefer full-time.
When work and family are in conflict, family is more likely to suffer consequences than work.
Parents with higher stress levels spend substantially more time working at home in the evenings and weekends than those parents with lower stress levels.
Now consider that Waite and Schneider discovered that spending time with family members is the best stress reducer for parents.
That's any time with your kids, whether it is extended silence with a teen or the frequent ruckus of dining with 5-year-olds. Family time is healthy time.Lessening guilt One reason is that parents feel less guilty about being away from their kids when they are, in fact, home with them. Waite's take is that parents will feel even better if they put work concerns aside long enough to engage fully with the kids.
"Doing things with the family made parents - in the study - more cheerful, friendly and cooperative," Waite said. "Parents who spend less time with the kids and spouse are stressed, anxious and angry."
Although technology, such as too much TV, gets a hard rap on the knuckles from most parenting experts, Waite said cell phones, e-mails and faxes can help keep parents and kids connected. She said many parents in the study fretted more about their family commitments than did the kids themselves.
"The children gave their parents pretty high marks when evaluating the mother's or father's ability to balance work and family life," Waite said. "What seemed to matter most was being there for (children's) special events and not missing things without first informing the kids."
Waite said this point can do a lot of repair in stressed families.
"Some parents don't have a choice with certain work issues," Waite said.
"Let's say an attorney has to prepare for an important trial, or someone else routinely has to work long hours. Children get less upset when they know in advance what to expect about parents showing up. Let kids know the possibility you might miss something."
The University of Chicago study focuses on parent-child relations, but clarifying expectations about who gets home and when appears to be a sound strategy for working couples too, especially for those fathers in the Sloan 500 Family project who worked 10 to 12 hours a week more than their wives.
William Doherty, a University of Minnesota family therapist, suggested another relationship-rehabber: Make it point to spend at least 15 minutes a day with your spouse not discussing kids, work, bills or other household matters.
"Just talk like friends," he said.
Waite said, parents talking about work at home can be good for family relations. Just skip most of your complaints.
"Kids appreciate it when parents talk about their work with them," Waite said. "They especially like hearing about what their parents love about their jobs. It gives them an idea about what it means to be successful."