Most working parents face a common dilemma—how to care for their children when they are not in school but the parents are at work. In this article Kathleen Christensen, Barbara Schneider, and Donnell Butler describe the predictable and unpredictable scheduling demands school-age children place on working couples and single working parents.
The authors assess the potential capacity of schools to help meet the needs of working families through changes in school schedules and after-school programs and conclude that the flexibility parents need to balance family-work responsibilities probably cannot be found in the school setting. They argue that workplaces are better able than schools to offer the flexibility that working parents need to attend to basic needs of their children, as well as to engage in activities that enhance their children’s academic performance and emotional and social well-being.
Two types of flexible work practices seem especially well suited to parents who work: flextime arrangements that allow parents to coordinate their work schedules with their children’s school schedules, and policies that allow workers to take short periods of time off—a few hours or a day or two—to attend a parent-teacher conference, for example, or care for a child who has suddenly fallen ill. Many companies that have instituted such policies have benefited through employees’ greater job satisfaction and employee retention.
Yet despite these measured benefits to employers, workplaces often fall short of being family friendly. Many employers do not offer such policies or offer them only to employees at certain levels or in certain types of jobs. Flexible work practices are almost nonexistent for low-income workers, who are least able to afford alternative child care and may need flexibility the most.
Moreover the authors find that even employees in firms with flexible practices such as telecommuting may be reluctant to take advantage of them, because the workplace culture explicitly or implicitly stigmatizes or penalizes employees for choosing these work arrangements. The authors conclude by making a case for creating a workplace culture that supports flexibility. Such a culture, they argue, would enable working parents to better meet the responsibilities of their jobs as they care for and build strong relationships with their children.