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CIOS - Seeing Work-Life from Children’s Standpoints
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 16 Numbers 3 & 4, 2006


Jane Jorgenson
University of South Florida

Abstract: In responding to the editor’s invitation to “consider the inherent difficulty of communicating about our differing life-realms of experience (e.g., public-private, work-family, work-life, personal-professional, etc.),” I propose some avenues for enlarging the themes of research on work-personal life relationships by bringing children into the foreground as subjects. I explore (a) the meaning and experience of time in children’s everyday lives as well as (b) children’s performance of unpaid labor in their households.

In her invitation to contribute to this special issue on Communication and the Accomplishment of Personal and Professional Life, Erika Kirby reflected on the inherent difficulty of communicating about this subject matter: “I continually struggle,” she writes, “with naming what I do in terms of a research agenda.” I, too, have struggled with how to think, research, and write about work-life interrelationships in a way that does not inadvertently reinforce the old separate spheres dualities. Kirby’s call invites all of us to reconsider the taken-for-granted oppositions, and to find the dynamic tension between “personal” and “professional.” One path to this necessary integration may lie in incorporating a wider range of voices and differently positioned perspectives into our research (Thorne, 2001; Kirby, Golden, Medved, Jorgenson, & Buzzanell, 2003). My goal here is to propose some avenues for enlarging the themes of research on work-personal life relationships by bringing children into the foreground as subjects. Even though children are identified almost exclusively with the personal or family side of the dichotomy and denied much influence beyond the household’s physical boundaries, the reality is more complex. In this brief essay I argue that looking at work-life through a child-centered as opposed to the usual adult-centered lens reveals how work is interwoven in the fabric of children’s lives, and provides a new vantage point from which to question the self-evident separation between the domains of work and family.

Children occupy an ambiguous position in the academic dialogue on work-life: simultaneously at the center of thinking, yet also on the margins. Much of the emerging research on work-life relationships is premised on the idea that children are dependent on parental care, and that children’s needs shape parents’ beliefs and choices about how to manage their work roles around their caring roles. These assumptions seem so trivial that they usually go unnoticed. An unfortunate result is that researchers have tended to frame children’s experiences largely as “outcome effects” of parental work arrangements (Beach, 1988). Rather than acknowledging children as active contributors to family life, we conceptualize them as “time-consuming objects” (Daly, 1996, p. 191), more resource demanding than resourceful. As childhood researchers Hagglund and Janson (2005) noted recently, the possibility that children could be a resource—and could provide care for others—seems almost unimaginable to many adults.

In constructing children as the passive recipients of adult care we tend to overlook the ways in which children perform as “border crossers” (Clark, 2000), playing an active role along with adults in constructing the interrelated contexts of work and family. Making the effort to grasp children’s views of the “work” side of work-life relationships is particularly vital in a period when traditional work arrangements are giving way to new forms of flexible work and information technologies are extending the reach of organizations ever farther into the spaces and times of “home.”

My ideas are inspired by emerging research in two areas. One specific area focuses on the meaning and experience of time in children’s everyday lives, and the other on children’s performance of unpaid labor in their households. Empirical insights from both lines of investigation suggest children are more central to the domain of work than we might expect and also reveal the salience of work meanings and identities to children’s negotiation of their positions within the family. Both areas reflect the influence of a newly emerging interdisciplinary paradigm in childhood studies. The “new social studies of childhood” entails a shift toward seeing childhood as a socially constructed status, and conceptualizes children less as “adults in the making” and more as competent social performers whose experiences may be structured through systems unfamiliar to adults (Prout & James, 1997). The child studies perspective holds potential for redirecting and invigorating communication scholarship on work-life through its emphasis on the agency children exercise as they “cross borders” in negotiating contextual shifts and learning distinctive styles of behavior associated with work and family contexts (James & Prout, 1996).

The Temporal Flow of Children’s Lives

Time is a powerful emotional and subjective dimension of daily family life. Each family has its own pace in terms of the speed at which it moves to get things done (Kanter & Lehr, 1975), and “gifts” and “debts” of time serve as tokens within a family’s locally meaningful system of relational currencies (Galvin & Brommel, 1996). Although we may think of childhood as a period of pleasurable and unfettered free time, children are exposed to lessons about time from an early age, including the proper order and duration connected to events, as well as the subtle ways in which one’s own movements in time connect to the feelings of others (Henry, 1973).

The study of the professional↔personal life interface from children’s standpoints invites a focus on the multiple rhythms and varying temporal frames that structure children’s time as distinct from adult time. We know that both children and adults are susceptible to the speed-ups and time squeezes of the demanding new economy. Dual-income households with children are among the most “work busy” of those coping with problems of work intensification and time poverty (Brannen, 2005). In the Taylorized families depicted in Hochschild’s (1997) The Time Bind, children are particularly vulnerable to temporal demands for speed and efficiency imposed by parents’ work. Subjected to factory style speed-ups and time crunches, they are hurried from one place to another and made to squeeze all their emotional needs into the hour or less that their parents have to spare in the evening. Hochschild also depicts children’s strategies of resistance against these oppressive temporal regimes as they bargain with their parents for emotional (and material) compensation.

Given this seemingly inevitable conflict between the pace of a child’s life and the imposed pace of a parent’s schedule it is important to move beyond the relatively straightforward measurement of time and time scarcity to look closely at the nuances and rhythms of time. From a child’s point of view, time “wealth” probably involves not only having the right amount of time but having it at the right time of the day or week, so that it is synchronized with the time rhythms of friends and family members (Daly, 1996). If children are expected to fit their activities into the externally imposed timetables of parental work, then in what sense are children “on call” and at the disposal of the requirements of parents’ paid work? How much time do they spend “waiting” (Thorne, 2001) and where does this waiting take place—at home, at school, or at after-school and childcare centers?

A temporal perspective also raises questions about how children apprehend the changing nature of work in the knowledge economy, in particular the shifts towards flexible, home-based work arrangements. As more of the space and time of personal life is ceded to work, to what extent do children experience home as a more regulated and production-oriented environment? Put another way, how does the increasing flexibility of space contribute to losses in temporal flexibility for children as well as for adults? As we continue to explore the meanings children attach to these experiences, we might consider the full range of ways in which children “kick back” against adult-imposed time structures. How, for example, do they participate with adults in designing and performing “family time” as a kind of family ritual, a deliberately bracketed period of private time that is distinct from work time and outside the boundaries of everyday interaction?

Children’s Working Life

Another facet of children’s daily lifeworlds whose significance is easily overlooked from an adult viewpoint is their own contributions as workers. Definitions of work tend to be confined to adult activity, while childhood is equated with play and study, a time in life without adult-like duties and responsibilities. Yet even those in postindustrial economies where childhoods are relatively privileged and protected, work can be an important element in children’s lives (Punch, 2003). Children’s work is most visible when their working activities resemble those performed by adults, as when they work alongside parents in a family business (see for example, Solberg, 1996; Song, 1996). Among the least visible forms of child work are domestic chores and various forms of self-maintaining labor such as dressing and grooming that are considered mainly important as aspects of socialization. Providing care for younger siblings is another activity whose economic value is unlikely to be recognized; yet sibling caregiving serves as part of a crucial support system enabling parents to get their own work done.

With the increasing participation of women in the paid labor force, demand has increased for children’s help in the maintenance of the household. As a result, children have taken possession of the house in a geographical sense, and according to Solberg (1997) are becoming the “new homemakers.” Solberg found that children alone at home after school had taken over a share of the domestic chores formerly done by their mothers, as well as preparing their own food, bringing in mail, relaying telephone messages, and taking care of their own appointments. More importantly, in changing places with their mothers, children were exercising a larger scope of autonomy away from adults’ direct supervision. Thus, Solberg’s (1997) research unpacks the assumed connections between children’s age as a biological given and their social competence.

The presence of more and more complex information technologies in the home affords additional opportunities for children to manifest displays of competence. When children’s technological skills equal or exceed those of their parents, they may take on the role of family IT experts. Future studies of children’s contributions as household knowledge workers will likely reveal that they “do not experience a work/play dichotomy; they work while playing and play while working” (Thorne, 1987, p. 100).

Even though children have long been relegated to the domestic/family/female side of the public-private divide, their activities and experiences cut across the assumed boundaries. This is especially true now as the home office replaces the daily commute to a centralized work site, and the spatiality and temporality of work are being reconfigured. As we learn more about the meanings children attribute to their household work, and to the rhythms of their daily lives, we may find that children in the new economy are more implicated in both the task and sentient structures (Miller & Rice, 1990) of parents’ work than ever before—as resources as well as stress factors. Attending to their voices and perspectives holds promise for re-energizing the ongoing critique of assumptions about the appropriate spheres for doing work and for doing family.


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