Interview: The Baby Drought
Industrial: Lies, AWAs and Statistics
Workplace: The Invisible Parents
History: Bruce’s Big Blunder
Politics: All God's Children
Economics: Spun Out
International: Shakey Trials
Legal: Civil Distrubance
Review: Crash Course In Racism
Poetry: You're Fired
The Locker Room
An Act of Faith
Remembering Workers In Cairns
Fair Go For Injured Workers
A Question Of Choice
Galahs Up The Cross
The Invisible Parents
Both have changed irrevocably from the post-War era of the marriage and baby boom; both are now much more complex than at any other time in history; and both suffer from stresses pulling people in both directions.
Sitting sadly in the middle of this tug of war are the nation's children, hurried from one carer to another, missing out on both quantity and quality time with either parent, unsure where they stand in the priorities of Mum's and Dad's busy lives, and growing up with little sense that they matter in a time of 'Affluenza'. (Clive Hamilton's recent term)
Nor does government policy take a consistent stance on the importance of children and families. On the one hand, we have a National Strategy for Children (initiated by ex-Minister Larry Anthony) which asserts the importance of early childhood and maternal health, quality child care and early learning experiences, and support for child-friendly communities.
On the other hand we have proposed new industrial relations laws which are likely to damage the fabric of family life and make it even more difficult for Australia's parents to raise their children to become competent, confident citizens in a globalizing future. There is no clear recognition of the value - to both the economy and the social fabric - of what I call 'caring work', especially the vital work of caring for, nurturing and raising the nation's children.
I was surprised to hear, last week, the Minister for Family & Community Services, Senator Kay Patterson, exulting on radio that the latest study of early childhood by the Australian Institute of Family Studies 'proved' that the Government's proposed changes to supporting parents benefits, imposing the work test on such women once their children were at school, were wise and sound. The study showed, she claimed, that sending them back to work would be good for the mothers, and would have no harmful effects on their children.
Not so. I waited for my copy of the report to come and have read it carefully. It is the first Annual Report of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC), a study of some 5000 infants and 5000 children aged 4-5. It's not a bad starting point for the argument I want to make briefly in this presentation.
What the study actually says is this. Overall, parents have a positive view of work. For 70% of them, being at work makes them feel more competent as individuals and 49% said their working had a positive effect on their children. What a surprise! Work has always been an important source of life satisfaction and personal identity. It is an aspect of our lives where our skills find an outlet, are rewarded financially, and recognized by others. If we get that sort of satisfaction, plus sufficient monetary reward, it's little wonder that work has a positive effect on our children.
But note that the Minister omitted to mention the other findings of the LSAC Study. In this sample of 10,000 Australian parents, 93% of the fathers are employed, 54% of the mothers. Where the children are infants, 48% have both parents in paid work; when they are 4-5 year olds, 55.6% have both parents working in a job. But the mothers are more likely to be in part-time work, on an average income of $375 per week. And what did they say about working hours?
Some 47% of these working parents "felt rushed', always or often. And how many would like to work fewer hours than they do at present? 32% of mothers with infant children; 38% of fathers of infant children; 23% of mothers of 4-5 year olds; and 41% of fathers of 4-5 year olds would prefer fewer working hours. With close to half feeling 'rushed' and round a third wanting to work fewer hours, that's hardly an endorsement of current work-family arrangements.
And what about the supposed positive effects of working parents on child outcomes? These were measured in terms of the child's health and physical development, their level of social and emotional functioning, and their learning and academic competence.
Yes, 49% of parents felt it was good for their children if they had a paid job. But 37% said work had neither a positive nor a negative effect; and 18% reported that their jobs had a negative effect on their children's lives. That's close to one in five.
And the actual research findings on child outcomes show a greater impact of factors other than the parents' work status. For example, having no siblings or only one correlated with higher learning outcomes. Having lots of brothers and sisters leads to lower socio-emotional competence, a surprise given that we often assume big families socialize children more effectively. The worst outcomes for children reflect low parental education, not job status, though the least educated parents are less satisfied with their jobs and earn less anyway to feed and house their children well. And guess what - children who have attended pre-schools and educational day care, those who start with a more developed 'readiness to learn', show much better outcomes (on all measures) than those who are simply shunted from one baby-sitter to another or whose parents cannot afford or access good quality children's services.
Moreover, it is the parents who report higher self-confidence and competence (the better educated and the better employed) who seem to produce children who are socially and emotionally competent. So, it is not the fact of having a job that makes the difference at all. It is the educational and occupational status of parents in the first place, their actual satisfaction with work and their parenting style (warmth versus hostility; being consistent; and using inductive reasoning with their children) that count.
My point in spending so long on this most recent study is simply this. It is satisfaction with work status, not just having a job that makes for better child outcomes and adult life quality. Not a new finding at all.
Indeed, back in 1995, when I was still Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Gay Ochiltree and I reported on the findings of another study (of early child care), which involved over 9000 children and detailed interviews with the mothers of 728 children. In brief, that study showed that it was not exposure to long day care that explained the differences in children's development; it was the nature of the mother's relationships - both to work and to her partner, the child's father. If the mother was in a paid job, and happy with that job, her child was doing well on all outcome measures. If she was in a job but wanted to be at home looking after the child, that child was not doing so well. If she was at home and happy being at home, the child was OK; but if she was at home and miserable about being at home rather than employed, the child was doing less well. Similarly, if the mother was happy with her marital relationship and felt her partner was pulling his weight with the children, they were fine; if she had an unhappy relationship, and especially if she felt he was not helping her enough, they were not. Other factors - such as low family income, poor housing, ethnicity - also made a difference to children's development, but it was the links between work and family status that were most significant.
In short, parents care about their children, want to do their best by them, cannot always do so because they have to work (financially, preferring not to), or they want to work but can't find the right job, or child care, and their unhappiness carries over to the children.
We heard recently that working parents spend more time traveling to and from work than they spend in interaction with their children. In Sydney it is an average of 4 hours 43 minutes traveling, in Melbourne an average of 4 hours 22 minutes per week. 30 per cent of Melbourne fathers notched up a weekly commuting time of 7 hours and 53 minutes, the equivalent of another full day's work. In contrast, they spent just 3 hours and 44 minutes a week playing with their children or helping with their homework. Most of these heavy commuters were professionals, tradesmen, managers and administrators. With inadequate public transport, affordable housing only at a distance from the workplace, such 'absentee Dads' are unlikely to be acting as (in Brian Jackson's terms) "a double engine behind the child's potentiality".
Small wonder that we have children reporting to us, when asked to describe their fathers, such things as:
"I don't know. He's good. He does a lot of work. I don't know what else he does. He fixes up his car." (Boy, aged 9)
"Doesn't like to tie himself down. He's too busy at work. Totally non-committal to us. Doesn't give money away too easily. Just wants to go to work, or the club, and talk to his mates and drink." (Boy, aged 15)
"He's kind, but he finds it hard to show it. He really loves us kids, but he's not often around. It's hard ... half the time I can't work him out." (Girl, aged 15)
In that study (Amato, 1987), 13 per cent of all children said their fathers did not talk with them enough and a third wished they had more time with their fathers. As Ellen Galinsky says, in a US study called 'Ask the Children' (1999), her finding that those who report more stress and imbalance between work and family are those who work more hours a week, have carry-over work at weekends and evenings, have less parenting support and find their job less personally satisfying reflects "almost to a tee, all the ways that work has changed over the past 20 years: parents are working more hours, are taking work home more often, are under more time pressure ... in this age of downsizing when fewer people do the same amount of work, more of us are being called on to meet customers' needs and technology makes us instantly accessible, wherever we are." (p. 182)
But Galinsky also reports that children are often less negative about the job spillover than the parents themselves. Kids are pretty understanding about the necessity for parents to work, and as one mother says - "I can have a bad day at work and feel it spilling over, but my actual action may not show that and my child may not perceive it. Isn't that what's called maturity? My feelings don't always have to dictate my behaviour."
But as one 9 year-old puts it - "My mom - she's very expressional. If she comes in and picks me up from the baby-sitter's and says "Come on, just hurry up, I really want to get home," I know that she's had a really bad day. My dad keeps everything inside. He's not very talkative. But I can tell by the expression on his face."
So let's not kid ourselves. The spillover from work to family life is greater than the spillover from family life to work. But it is a complex relationship.
As Russell & Bowman put it (2000), referring to a huge US study by Amato & Booth, "When children were younger their achievement was associated with fathers' income and not with fathers' involvement in child rearing. When children reached adolescence fathers had the most influence on achievement through provision of help and emotional support. Overall marital harmony and quality was a key variable in children's achievement, along with income of father (but not of mother) and parent's educational level. The authors conclude that while fathers do not exercise important direct effects on children's socioeconomic success, they have important indirect influence through the quality of the marital relationship." (p. 18) So, the father's 'absence' from the marriage (whether that be in physical time and space, or in emotional distance) exercises an indirect but important effect on the children and their social and educational development.
Recent British research (Adrienne Burgess, 2004) shows also that a key predictor of a man's health is worries about his relationships with his children. And the less satisfied people are in their marriages (both men and women) the more likely they are to find their jobs satisfying, and therefore to move on. Patricia Hewitt argues that involved fatherhood reduces the mother's work-family stress considerably, and enables them to take on greater work responsibilities. Family breakdown and its associated effects costs employers a fortune, and a major predictor of family breakdown is a woman's feeling that her partner is not doing his fair share at home. In parallel, high father involvement (with children and household responsibilities) is associated with both the stability and the quality of couple relationships.
The conclusion? Having a workplace that allows both men and women to meet their family responsibilities (first to their partners, then to their children and, later on, to their ageing parents) is crucial to
1. the stability of marital relationships
2. the life satisfaction of individuals
3. the quality of child development outcomes
4. the performance and productivity of employees
Yet in Australia, we have a government hell-bent on resisting paid maternity leave, let alone parental leave; a government insisting that only paid work - not caring work - is of value to the economy; not seeing that the work of carers is crucial to the good society; a government driving everyone into a paid job, regardless of its pay level or its suitability for meeting family and community needs, yet pretending to be in favour of 'family values'. In my mind, this is hypocrisy at the highest level.
My only hope is (as I argue at length in my new book, The War Over Work , the coming together of a job skills shortage, lower birthrate, an ageing population, and a new wave of demands for life quality (from women, the new young, and the new aged) as opposed to a blind consumerism, will force the workplace to adapt to meet our complex family circumstances more than any award can do. It is my hope that the Trade Union movement will continue to argue the cause of family life, rather than the self-interest of unionists, and that this will produce a backlash against an uncaring oligarchy of economic rationalists at both the political and business level.
Dr. Don Edgar is a writer and social policy consultant. His most recent book 'The War Over Work: the future of work and family' was published last month by Melbourne University Press; and his previous book 'The Patchwork Nation: Rethinking government, Rebuilding community' was published by Harper Collins in 2001. He was foundation Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
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