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Making Parents’ Work Visible

Last week children loved watching art teacher Lara Cannon at work on a ladder in the hall, carefully painting the outline of a huge tree. Seeing the roots, trunk, and branches emerge, a preschooler observed, “It has no leaves.” Later he returned and stared at the whole canopy of leaves she had created. The children could see how Lara’s work progressed.

Psychologists have long lamented that children in modern life rarely get to watch adults engaged in their work. In the past, watching grown-ups do their jobs was an important way children learned practical skills and an understanding of what careers they might like.

One interesting part of the pandemic has been moving the workplace into the home, radically changing the lives of children and adults. The everyday drama of parents trying to meet deadlines and hold virtual conferences while meeting their children’s needs has become a national conversation. However, one of the not-so-obvious aspects of this unprecedented situation is that it provides an opportunity for children to see how their parents work.

Think back to your childhood and what you knew about your parents’ jobs. Did you have an understanding of what they did at work? My father was a tugboat captain on San Francisco Bay, and occasionally my siblings and I got to visit him on the job. Actually seeing what he did put the stories he told about work into an understandable context. I never wanted to be a tugboat captain, but I grew up with an understanding of the satisfaction and challenges of having a job with a lot of responsibility.

Before the pandemic, companies sometimes held a “bring your child to work day” to give children a glimpse of the business environment. However, the work itself was never very visible on those special days, and in our highly mechanized society, it’s common even for spouses not to really understand what their partner does at work. Technology can make many of our endeavors even more invisible.

With all the challenges of carrying out the demands of people’s jobs remotely, parents can also think about the potential for talking to children about different facets of what they do. What is their job? What do they like about it? How do they get things done? What do they do when they’re frustrated or make mistakes? Lara gave the children a concrete image of what an artist does, how much concentration it takes, and how much care goes into the project.

This idea of making adult work more visible doesn’t just apply to our careers but to all the tasks we undertake. Let’s think about how children can benefit from understanding the world of work with a vision of what they might like to do in the future.


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