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Perceived Parenting Slights Can Make You a Better Parent

SMLR professor Rebecca Greenbaum's family
As a mother to a 12-, 10-, 8- and 6-year-old, Professor Rebecca Greenbaum said she has developed “a thicker skin” and isn’t as bothered as much by criticisms of her parenting, but does recall when comments from colleagues, especially about her large family, would rattle her.
Courtesy of Rebecca Greenbaum

Rebecca Greenbaum from the School of Management and Labor Relations studies how comments in the workplace can affect parenting

Rutgers’ School of Management and Labor Relations Professor Rebecca Greenbaum was up for tenure at another university seven years ago when she received some unsolicited parenting advice that left her rattled.

“Maybe think about not having a child every other year,” a former colleague told the mother of a then 5- and 3-year-old.

“Back then I felt shattered a bit more by things that seemed like negative commentaries because I wasn’t secure in my parenting yet,” she said.

The encounter caught Greenbaum off guard but got her thinking: how do perceived workplace slights about parenting impact parents’ productivity at work and home?

While irritating and unsettling, these interactions probably make you a better parent, at least in the short-term, according to the results of a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology co-authored by Greenbaum, who studies human resource management, and researchers from three other U.S. universities and one in the UK.

“We found that the sense of violation of their identity as parents leads to feelings of shame, but that shame can motivate different behavior,” said Greenbaum. “Over the next couple of days, you are not as productive at work, but you shift those resources to the family and are more productive as a parent.”

The researchers – all but one of whom are parents – found that a colleague’s intent had little impact on outcomes for parents. Even curious inquiries (“Do you read with your child every day?”) or casual conversations (“My kindergartener is reading at a second-grade level.”) could cause a parent to doubt themselves, pull back from work and focus more attention on their family.

“Most people don’t go around saying, ‘I want to be a mediocre parent,'” Greenbaum said. “So, when something happens at work that calls into question your capability of being a good parent, your concept of self feels threatened.”

How much a parent fixates on these encounters will depend on their overall mental state and confidence in their parenting. These days, said Greenbaum, as a mother to a 12-, 10-, 8- and 6-year-old, she has developed “a thicker skin” and isn’t as bothered as much by criticisms of her parenting – whether real or imagined. But on the flip side, a new mother struggling with postpartum depression who has placed her infant in daycare with a bottle for the first time may have difficulty focusing in the office after hearing a colleague gush about the bonding benefits of breastfeeding.

The study results confirm what working parents have long suspected: they are caught in a tug of war between work and family. She tackled the previously under-studied topic with a hope that employers will recognize benefits of providing working parents with more support and flexibility.

“The more an organization can support work-life balance, the less likely is it to lose employee productivity,” she said.

While the pandemic exacerbated the overlap that exists between work and family, said Greenbaum, it also highlighted the benefits of flexible work schedules. But employers can do more to support working parents than approve hybrid work schedules.

“They can be more cognizant of the fact that people have these two identities,” Greenbaum said. “Through inclusion efforts, employers can focus on people at different life stages, including working parents, and maybe point out the kind of comments that could be perceived as negative and shouldn’t be said.”