Is your high-powered job setting your kids up to fail?

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family dinner

I would do anything to create the best life possible for my daughter. Heck, we all want the best for our kids. It’s one of the reasons we work so hard.

But is the way we’re working truly setting our kids up for the best possible future?

If you’re slaving away at a job, even a well-paid job, that funds college accounts and buys nice things, but summarily empties your soul and steals your presence from the family, the answer is a resounding no.

Simple fact—being there counts even more than money.

A recent Harvard study followed the experience of 65 children over 8 years, in an effort to learn what factors and activities, from play to family events, were most determinative of a child’s healthy development. The results of the study were broadcast nationally to the near-universal thud of dropped-jaws.

The single most importance factor in a child’s likelihood of being well-adjusted and staying out of trouble was not household income, friends, schooling, extra-curricular activities or any of the other standard answers. It was how present the parents were.

More specifically, the best adjusted, least-troubled kids were those who ate dinner with their parents, as a family, most every day.

Backing up this conclusion is a 1997 survey by psychologist BS Bowden and JM Zeisz that tracked 527 teens ages 12 to 18. This study revealed the best adjusted teens were those who ate a meal with an adult in their family an average of 5.4 times a week. Those who were not as well-adjusted ate with an adult an average of 3.3 times a week.

“Well-adjusted” teens were more motivated at school, had better relationships and were less likely to be depressed or get involved with drugs, while those who were less well-adjusted showed the opposite tendencies.

In fact, sharing meals as a family was more closely-correlated with being well-adjusted than any other factor measured, including age, gender and family type.

Beyond being well-adjusted and happier…

Kids who share more family meals also perform better in school.

A Reader’s Digest poll of 2,130 high-school seniors shows that eating meals and even snacks together as families give students a huge edge in academic performance. And, this crossed lines of gender, race and socioeconomic class.

Similarly, researchers at the University of Illinois found that 7 to 11 year olds who spent more time eating meals and snacks with their families, performed substantially better on school achievement tests. And, their achievement was not affected by their mother’s employment status, full-time, part-time or not employed. (Cullen, KW and T Baranowski. “Influence of family dinner on food intake of 4th to 6th grade students.” Paper presented at The American Dietetic Association’s Food and Nutrition Conference,October 2000)

Interestingly, family meals also seem to serve as a powerful communication medium.

In 1993, Oprah Winfrey conducted her “Family Dinner Experiment,” which tracked the experience of five families who committed to eating dinner together every night for a month and staying at the table for at least 30-minutes.

Each family was required to keep a journal detailing their feelings.

At the start of the month, many participants resisted the experience and reported meals seemed to drag on.

By the end of the month, however, the tone was dramatically different, with most family members looking forward to the experience and planning on continuing to eat as a family after the experiment ended.

When asked to speak about their experiences during their appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the parents universally expressed amazement at how much their kids came to value and look forward to being able to have their parents undivided attention for 30-minutes every day.

And, the research on family meals goes beyond improved psychological-adjustment to actual physical health.

Numerous studies show that kids who ate with families consumed more fruit and vegetables, dietary fiber, calcium, iron, folate, vitamins B-6, B-12, C and E and less fried food, saturated fats, trans-fats and soda.

Interestingly, kids who ate family dinners more often carried their healthier eating habits with them away from the home, too.

The research is clear.

When parents are present and involved on a daily basis, kids thrive on a level not experienced by those who suffer increasingly from virtual parent syndrome.

Sure, there are many challenges to being more present as a parent. Even as an entrepreneur, writer and speaker, with an unusual amount of control over my schedule, I struggle to find ways to ensure I am present for my wife and daughter on a daily, expectable basis.

But, it’s a struggle worth having.

And, if being there requires me to leave some money on the professional table in the name of keeping my connection with a kid who will, in turn, be more likely to be a better-adjusted, happier adult, that is a price I will happily pay.

So, what do you think? How do you balance the desire to earn money with the impact of being present in your family?

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20 responses

20 responses to “Is your high-powered job setting your kids up to fail?”

  1. Jonathan,
    Excellent post! Growing up in a family that did this quite well I can attest to the tangible benefits of time and dinner together. Sure, there were some nights that very little was said, but those nights paved the way for others where hearts were shared and we grew together as a family.

    My wife and I have a newborn daughter. This is something I want her to experience as well. Being in military I’ll have to deploy from time to time so it makes it even more important that I maximize the time I do have with her and my wife. Nothing is better than dinner together!



  2. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Cam – I have to imagine being in the military really brings home the power and importance of time with family. It can’t be easy for anyone being deployed, which, as you noted, makes time together even more important.

    It also makes you wonder what’s going on in society that makes people actively choose, every day, to not be with their families. It’s not a criticism, I am genuinely interested in what compels it across a wide range of socioeconomic standing.

    More insights, anyone?

  3. I don’t think it has to be a high-powered job to cause a problem. The time I was in school was hard on my teenager. I was gone or busy more often, whereas before I had had strict boundaries about how much work I’d do at home when she was around.

    She said she liked the independence, and she was very capable of coping, but something changed. She did not expect me to be there anymore. It’s hard to get that expectation of presence to come back. I don’t think it’s about trust in a person, entirely… maybe it’s a bottom line feeling of trusting that “home” is there?

    I think that trusting Mom to be there is a foundation for how we expect to be trusted and respected elsewhere.

  4. Hm. I thought this was going to be a post on the psychological effects of having to live up to two very successful parents. (Chelsea Clinton anyone?)

    I think the experiment on dinner-time was spot on. I FONDLY remember our dinner-times, though they were often from 7-8 while watching Star Trek: TNG. Oprah would probably disapprove!

  5. nicole says:

    Work smarter, not harder.

    Live beneath your means.

    Learn how to invest.

    Have patience.

    That’s how to find monetary success without neglecting loved ones.

  6. Hi Jonathan,

    very interesting study results!

    I think it is just a question to determine your priorities and goals in your life, and schedule your life towards the areas which matters for you most.

    This way, it is pretty easy to have time for your kids available. “He was always the last on in the office” is not a great thing to read on your gravestone…

  7. Dave Navarro says:

    100% agreement.

    Having breakfast with the kids helps too 🙂

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  9. Vlad says:

    This is one of those articles that will retain their value and importance 100 years from now. Thanks for providing such a convincing evidence.

  10. Jenn Osborne says:

    I also think that there is an important distinction between being physically present (but distracted by work) and actually being there in the moment with your child.

  11. Dana says:

    Welcome to the reason that so many single moms wanted to continue in the old welfare system, if it was not going to be improved, rather than be forced to turn to workfare. But society got all caught up in the idea that being an at-home mom was about sitting around on one’s butt eating bonbons and, as such, a single mom doing that was doing it on the taxpayer’s dime. Poof, we have workfare. And it’s not even *good* work. It’s penny-ante low-wage crap that forces moms to work long hours if they want to make up for the drop in benefits and still take care of their kids in that way.

    I know you probably meant this discussion in a middle-class vein but as you said, the money matters much less, and a kid is a kid no matter what their parents’ income level is.

    This whole thing was what got me NOT wanting to trot out and grab the first job I could find when it became obvious my little girl’s dad wasn’t going to be there for us as much as we needed. I figured one of us who made her needed to stick around and actually parent her. So that’s what I’ve done, and she’s turned out pretty well so far.

    I’ll disagree just slightly with Jenn too, in saying that there is a happy medium between being totally distracted by work all the time and in always being there “in the moment” with your child. You can work, but you should play with your child too, and children both need time with you and time to figure things out for themselves. Centering your whole life around them 24/7/365 makes you all, parent and kids, a bit loony in the end.

  12. Dana says:

    Oh, and @Johnathan: I think some of that choice to not be with one’s family comes from having made bad financial choices before starting the family and having to run and play catch-up after the family has been started. Speaking as someone who had to deal with that with my first child, years ago.

    People run up credit cards, or they take on huge amounts of student loans, or whatever, and then the bill comes due, and you have to pay it whether you have kids or not. And it’s easy to say “put off the kids,” but most people who have these debts are not ever going to get a handle on their finances, I don’t think, or they’re going to get a handle on them so late that having kids is almost going to be out of the question.

    Plus the “sunk-cost” fallacy of, “I ran up $60k or $100k on student loans and I’m gonna USE my MBA, dang it,” which also translates to long hours, as most professional employment does.

  13. Ben says:

    Dinnertime with the family isn’t very beneficial if the parents have a corrosive and dysfunctional relationship. I’m an only child and when I was a teenager, dinnertimes were very tense. It was only a matter of time before my mother and stepfather would start arguing. This would happen five or six nights of every week and the arguments would continue to the early hours of the morning.

    Suffice to say that I no longer have any contact with my stepfather and my mother passed away a few years ago.

    Funnily enough though the dinnertimes I have with my two sons and wife are usually pretty calm.

    I think that having parents “present” only benefits the child if the parents don’t have a lot of unresolved anger about their childhoods.

  14. […] Is Your High Powered Job Setting Your Kids Up To Fail – My parents made us eat as a family every night of the week my entire childhood, I’m glad to hear that’s significant to having well adjusted kids. But the studies didn’t say anything about eating together 7 nights a week, ha… […]

  15. Brip Blap says:

    I had some good comments to make but Dana made most of them before I did. Time with kids is almost completely discounted in the corporate environment. I’m a contract consultant – I went that route to cut down my hours as much as possible – and I say, with no exaggeration, that my coworkers think of me as being “whipped” or anti-social because I rush home at 5 instead of hanging around for evening bull sessions or drinks after work. I have made it a point every day for 2 years to get home before my son goes to sleep. I have a tough commute and usually don’t get home until 7, but I can say that my son – in 2 years – has never gone more than 1 night a week without saying goodnight to Papa, and most nights has dinner with me, too. And I do think it makes a difference. Great article, and something that has to be hammered home again and again and again if we want to restore some sanity to our society.

  16. […] long work hours and other office frustrations in order to provide a better life for their kids. But an interesting blog post from Jonathan Fields at Awake at the Wheel makes a powerful argument that the value of your daily presence far outweighs the value of a big […]

  17. […] Field’s recent post, Is Your High Powered Job Setting Your Kids Up To Fail, got me thinking about my own kids. He points out studies and experiments that show kids whose […]

  18. […] of what he would do differently involves taking more time with his daughter.  In his article, Is your high-powered job setting your kids up to fail, Jonathan Fields cites a study conducted by Harvard that concluded that the single most important […]

  19. […] likey to be a little controversial, but I’ll proceed anyway with reckless abandon. There is a recent post by Jonathan Fields about how spending time at work and not with your children can have a negative impact on them. He […]

  20. This study doesn’t surprise me at all. My son is only 4, but he already knows what a weekend is because he knows that’s when mummy and daddy are both home. Kids love to be with their parents. I know this changes as they get older, but I think that as long as you are present with your children and accepting of who they are, they will always gravitate back to you.

    My husband works long hours and commutes so he’s not around much during the week. But in that hour or so a day he is here with our son he is so focused on him that it keeps their connection going until the weekend when we all try to do stuff together.

    I had a lot of pre-conceived ideas about child rearing before I had kids, but now I don’t understand how people can tell themselves they’re doing the right thing by choosing work and money and STUFF over quality family time. I think this lifestyle just encourages our kids to be emotionally empty consumers. I don’t see dad and mum but hey I’ve got a PlayStation. Yeah, that’s really going to help them know who they are and find their place in the world.

    Great article.