Your child knows you go to work, but does she know what you do and why? Here's how to explain why parents have to work.

working mother at park with daughter
Credit: Veer

When your child begs you to stay home from work or asks why you have to go, what do you say? If you're like many parents, you probably try to reassure her and tell her you work to take care of the family. But does she really get it? If you haven't explained it to her, she most likely has her own thoughts about what you do during those hours you're away. "Toddlers simply know you're absent, and preschool and early school-age children usually equate work with their school," says Deborah Gilboa, M.D., founder of and author of Teach Responsibility: Empower Kids with a Great Work Ethic. This can lead them to think you go away to play with your friends and have snacks, Dr. Gilboa says. Explaining what you really do and the reasons for it will clear up misconceptions and help your child build a good work ethic for her future.

Keep it Simple

Describe your job in very basic terms. If you say you "compile and analyze financial data," it will confuse your child. Instead, give a simple explanation. "I am an accountant. I help the company keep track of its money" is all toddlers and preschoolers will understand. Since kindergartners and big kids probably have a job at school (line leader, caboose, messenger, hall monitor), Dr. Gilboa suggests using that as a starting point. "Say, 'Just as everyone in class has a job to make school easier, parents have responsibilities outside the home too,'" she suggests. Fir older children, you can give more details about what you do day-to-day. For instance, if you're a nurse, instead of saying you help sick people feel better (which is what you would tell younger kids), you could also mention you take vital signs, give medications, and draw blood. Mention a few basics and then encourage questions and comments.

Skip the Negativity

When explaining why you work, be careful with your wording. Avoid saying, "I work so you can have food, clothing, and shelter" or "Your dad and I have to work to take care of you and your brother." "You don't want to make your children feel it's their 'fault' you have to work or that you resent the burden the family places on you to provide financially," Dr. Gilboa says. Instead, keep it positive and focus on the whole family. To toddlers and preschoolers, it can be as simple as "I work to make sure our family has what we need, and to make the world a better place," Dr. Gilboa says. For older kids, you could say, "Your dad and I work because there are things our family wants and needs, like a nice home, a car, food, and fun activities. We work to afford them."

Keep pessimism in check when talking about the downsides of your career. It's okay to talk about the ups and downs of your work life, but make sure discussions are balanced and follow up complaints with solutions (or attempted ones) so your kid sees how you handle challenges, Dr. Gilboa says.

Address the Money

Your little one likely has quite a few money questions about your job: "How much does your boss pay you? Do you receive money every day? Can you buy me a??" "When kids ask these questions, you shouldn't ignore them, but you also don't need to be too specific or give more information than they need to know," says Ken Damato, founder and CEO of, a family financial education site. Instead of telling your child how much you're paid, how often, and when, assure her that the family has enough to live comfortably. You could say, "I [or we] make enough to pay the bills, afford the house and car, save, and do fun things occasionally." You should also talk about the different salary levels of common careers and explain that more education usually means higher earnings, Damato says. In addition, let your child know that working isn't only about earning a paycheck. Point out that many people do volunteer work, and that different jobs make society better.

Give a Tour

If possible, take your child to your workplace. Depending on a child's temperament and the company's atmosphere, kids as young as toddlers and preschoolers can spend an hour or two on the job. Show him your desk and the equipment you use, and let him open mail and perform other simple tasks. Don't forget to give him a lunch break in the company cafeteria. Before the workday is over, introduce him to your coworkers and supervisors. Explain what each person does so he learns about a variety of jobs.

Put Kids to Work

Kids learn by doing. Determine what you feel is a fair amount for specific age-appropriate jobs, and decide if your child will earn money or extra privileges. Then hold a mock job interview. Once she's hired, assign the duties. Toddlers and preschoolers can collect the small wastebaskets around the house or assist with laundry (sorting and loading the washer); older kids can sweep, clean the inside of the car, or do yard work. Keep records of which child does which job. On "payday," give your kiddo a "paycheck" that lists her name, tasks, pay rate, and total earnings. Tell her to take the check to the "bank" (you or Dad being the bank teller, of course) to get cash or redemption of her earned privileges. These extra steps keep things interesting and fun as children learn about work and finances.

Maintain Balance

Keeping your career and home life balanced is difficult but necessary. Putting work obligations before your child can easily cause him to resent you and your job. Prevent this by establishing boundaries. If your family has had an activity planned for months and your boss asks you to work late that evening, tell him you can't. When a coworker calls during dinner, put the discussion off until the next day. If you need to, schedule dates or times to spend with your family. During the appointed time, turn off your phone and give your kids your undivided attention. The same goes for work. Tell your family that, barring an emergency, they should allow you to focus on your job while you're away. Keeping work at work and focusing on family while home shows that both are important priorities.

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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