Parents' Work: Invaluable but Nearly Invisible

Published in the Wisconsin Parents Association Newsletter #114,
December 2012, pages 8-10
Presented with permission

Parents' Work: Invaluable but Nearly Invisible

As parents, we do some of the most important work in the world. Unfortunately, it is often overlooked, even by us parents. It is important that we take time to think about, recognize, acknowledge, keep in mind, and share with others the work that we do and the resulting benefits. Parents' work is essential to children's well-being, to parents themselves, and to society as a whole. No one else can do this work as well as parents can.

As homeschoolers, we have more experience with and often greater understanding of and stronger commitment to the benefits of parents' work. Our voices need to be heard, especially now as pressure is growing for children to start school at younger ages and spend more hours per day and days per year in school and for professionals and the government to take more responsibility for children at the expense of parents.

This article explores some obvious and not so obvious work that parents do and ways some parents cope with economic challenges by increasing the family work they do. Then it discusses reasons why the media doesn't give parents the credit and recognition they deserve. Finally there are suggestions for what we can do.

Work Families Do that Gets Taken for Granted, Sometimes Even by Families Themselves

What do parents provide for their children and do for and with them? Here are a few examples.

•  Parents make daily, weekly, and annual decisions about what opportunities to provide for their children. These include formal and informal learning, recreation, social activities, spiritual development, etc.

•  Parents watch and listen to their children, getting to know them and including their children's special interests, talents, abilities, and strengths in their decision making process.

•  Parents organize their children's schedules, deciding what needs to be included and what is going to happen when. Then parents make sure it happens, getting kids to meals, to bed, and to various activities and appointments, arranging for transportation if they don't provide it themselves, and handling other details.

•  Parents provide babies with their first social experiences. Then by the examples they provide and the opportunities they arrange, they help children learn to relate to others, develop friendships, deal with difficult people, etc.

•  Through the commitments parents make to their children, they provide security and continuity. Other people in children's lives change, but their parents are always their parents. This stability is critical and allows children to focus on learning and growing.

•  Parents monitor children's health. Because they know their children well, they can sense when something is wrong and make good decisions about when outside help is needed.

•  Parents willingly (sometimes even joyfully) make untold sacrifices for their children, giving up money, time, sleep, privacy, and more for the sake of their children.

•  Parents learn parenting skills from experience, reading, talking with other parents, etc.

•  Parents love their children. To most parents this comes so naturally that it does not feel like work, but to children it is invaluable. No one else is capable of loving our children the way we can. When people say, “Parents are not objective or realistic about their children. They are too soft on them,” a good response is, “Actually parents often know their children better than anyone else. If other people knew children the way their parents do, they would be more impressed with them and less critical of their supposed faults.”

•  Perhaps even more important, a parent is making a lifelong commitment of attention, support, counseling, decision making, financial backup, interpersonal relationships that may extend to include in-laws, grandchildren, great grandchildren, etc. This commitment lasts longer than many marriages and than most jobs one gets paid to do.

The work of a parent at home ranges from the mundane of paying the electric bill to the incalculable importance of nurturing, caring for, and loving a child. To assign a dollar value to this unpaid work, assume at least one parent is working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Assume the average pay for waking hours is $25 an hour, which is a real steal when one considers that parents need to be skilled and ready to make critical decisions as well extend significant physical, emotional, and spiritual energy throughout these hours. Assume $8 an hour for resting hours, remembering that people are paid to be on-call round the clock in various jobs. The value of one year's work would be $169,360. And that's just for one parent.

Of course, parents get many rewards for the commitments they make. These include what happens on a daily basis. Children bring us joy, make us laugh, offer hope, make us marvel at what humans can do and accomplish, help us relax, give us opportunities to be in touch with other parents, give us very good reasons to feel good about ourselves and to feel not just needed but essential.

Another way of assessing the value of parents' work is to consider the ways in which families cope with economic challenges by increasing the work the family does. Many families manage to homeschool by reducing the number of hours parents work primarily for pay outside the family and doing more work within the family at reduced costs. Possibilities include:

Cooking food from scratch rather than buying prepared food or eating out. Gardening, raising chickens, and other food production. Reading aloud, playing games, inventing activities, and other ways of creating entertainment rather than paying for expensive entertainment. Learning on one's own using the library, Internet, and people one knows rather than enrolling in expensive classes. Having young people over 18 continue to live at home rather than renting an apartment. Sharing one or more family cars. Cutting each other's (or one's own) hair. Having enough confidence to develop a style of one's own rather than needing to have the latest, in-style clothes. Increasing the chances of staying healthier by eating well and getting enough exercise and rest. Doing some self-care when possible by learning about simple home remedies, homeopathy, herbs, and other alternatives.

Another way to look at the value and benefits of parents' work is to consider reasons people look to their families as the basis for economic security, health, and happiness. Among the reasons:

•  The family is where who you are and can become is established, supported, and valued.

•  Money, while essential in our society, is transient while the family endures.

•  As discussed above, the family can provide much of what is most important at a fraction of the cost of having others do it.

•  The family can provide better quality products and services that are essential to living and happiness. Examples of this include: homemade food, education, health care, nutrition, confidence, and social skills.

•  The family can provide better goals and standards for living than people are likely to encounter in our major institutions today, including schools and corporations.

•  The alternative to parents, that is, turning children over to professionals and institutions such as schools, day care centers, and preschools, can cost a great deal. This may cost money. For example, kids may need more clothes, purchased lunches, transportation, school supplies, etc. Then there's tuition for private programs. Also, it can diminish children's character and confidence, which is a cost greater than money.

•  Institutions are much more powerful than most individuals and will force the individual to meet the institution's way of doing things. This often costs the individual a great deal on both the short term and long term. By contrast, families allow people the opportunity to be themselves, to grow and learn.

Reasons You Won't Find the Mainstream Media Giving Parents Credit

Given all that parents do, it's easy to wonder why it is so hard to find in the mainstream media or in most studies much if any information about the economic and personal benefits of parents' work at home. Here are some of the reasons:

•  The media reflects the way in which our society emphasizes money and the economy. Because parents' work is not paid for, it is not included in the gross domestic product (GDP). (The GDP is the total market values of goods and services produced by workers and capital within a nation's borders during a given period, usually 1 year. It is widely assumed to be a reliable measure of the size and strength of a country's economy, although it doesn't measure any work, service, or product for which money is not exchanged.) When families increase the work they do themselves and spend less buying goods and services, this increase does not “grow the economy” or increase the GDP. In fact, it actually decreases the GDP because parents spend less buying goods and services from others. Sadly, our society counts as economically beneficial the money that is spent dealing with serious problems such as disease, depression, learning disabilities, divorce, etc. Although these are tragic in human terms, our society is set up to consider them to be “good for the economy” because they lead people to spend more money.

So what gets counted has to do with the public exchange of money. Here is an example of how deeply ingrained and accepted money has become as a measure of a person's value or worth. What do people mean when they ask: “What do you make?” or “Where do you work?” The real question is: “How much money do you earn in a year?” Or “What work do you do for pay?” The question is not whether you make shoes or bread or toothpaste or cars. And the question most certainly is not whether you are raising a family or caring for children.

Parents, especially mothers, who work as nurturers and care givers, either are not asked the question or find it awkward or even embarrassing since there is not a well accepted answer that is commonly recognized as important and valued. What does one say: “I don't make money” Or “I'm a just a homemaker”? Some parents have worked out an answer that self-consciously justifies not earning money such as “I was working as a ...[fill in the name of a job or profession]... but now I'm taking a break and working at home, raising a family.” However, a better response might be, “I'm a full-time parent which I feel is worthy of my time and energy despite the fact that our society doesn't pay me in money for this work.”

•  The media relies on money from advertisers for its income, so it is aware of how advertisers are likely to respond to stories it presents. Few advertisers make money on the work that parents do at home, so the media does not benefit economically from stories about strong families. By contrast, the media does get advertising dollars from many of the vested interests who have made children and families their clients, such as law firms, clinics and hospitals, teachers, and colleges and universities. This gives the media incentive to present stories that show, for example, how teachers or social service programs are helping families deal with problems.

•  Most research dealing with children and families portrays families as having problems, not as strong economic units doing important work themselves. Researchers often have a vested interest in turning people into clients so they and others in their field can increase their incomes, jobs, and prestige. Because of their training, the commitment of many years of their lives, and the professional roles they have assumed, it is not surprising that researchers and other professionals want to see their professions as necessary to solving the apparent or real problems of families. They are much less likely to design and conduct studies that could show the strength of parents and the problems caused by professionals and institutions.

What We Can Do

•  We can spend time reflecting on the important work that we and others do as parents, on how important it is to our children, and on how essential it is that we do it because no one else can do it as well as we can. Many parents find that keeping a journal reminds them of the important work they are doing and how well their children are growing and learning. It helps maintain their confidence and is a good resource when they have doubts.

•  We can share stories about important work we are doing in our support groups, in homeschooling newsletters, on call-in radio, in blogs, etc. We can encourage support groups and organizations in which we participate to include a space, such as a newsletter column or time during a meeting, that discusses and celebrates the vital role parents play on a daily basis.

•  We can be prepared to correct or redirect discussions that de-emphasize or disempower parents and families. We can speak up for parents when the opportunity arises.

•  We can develop the habit of asking ourselves tough questions about articles and studies that are critical of parents and families such as, “Who is benefiting from this article?” We can write letters to the editor in response to unfavorable articles.

•  We can support organizations that promote the principles and points that we agree with.