How Children Welcome Parents
A Doonesbury cartoon strip a few years ago portrayed a father opening the door to his teenage son's room and asking if it is okay to come in. His son assures him, "Adults your age are invisible to us. You walk into a room of kids, no one will stand or acknowledge you in any way." After his father sighs, "Yeah, I hate that," his son continues, "I mean, unless you are holding a gun or a pizza or something." Is this how the study's children responded to their returning parents?
To address this question, we asked, "To what extent did each child display positive behavior, report information, engage in logistic talk, display negative behavior, or distraction toward their returning fathers and mothers?" Then we asked a different question: "To what extent did returning fathers and mothers receive positive behavior, report information, engage in logistic talk, display negative behavior, or distraction from at least one of their children?" This second question gives us a glimpse of the psychological experience of a parent returning home. For example, a positive reception from at least one member of the family may buffer a returning parent from feeling completely ignored.
The picture we found for reunions between working parents and their children, especially for working fathers, differs from what we saw form couples reuniting at the end of day. Here are the details.
Positive and Negative Behaviors. Children welcomed returning fathers differently from mothers on their arriving home from work. The children welcomed their fathers with positive behaviors—greeting, hugging, or otherwise demonstrating affection—in only 44 percent of the homecomings, compared to 59 percent of the homecomings of their mothers. When we looked at the possibility of fathers and mothers being welcomed positively by at least one child, however, it was comforting to find that both fathers and mothers were greeted positively by at least one of their children every time (100 percent) they returned home from work. Thus, while fathers did not experience positive attention from children more than half of the time they reentered the household, they could count on one of their children to greet them positively. Moreover, on the optimistic side, children very rarely acted in a negative manner to either returning fathers (four percent) or returning mothers (two percent).
Information Reports. Differences in how children welcomed home fathers and mothers showed up in other behaviors as well. Children gave reports of their day less often (39 percent) to returning fathers than to returning mothers, who received such reports on nearly half of the occasions (48 percent) they arrived home. This difference is even more striking when we look at the possibility that at least one child recounted events about their day to a returning parent. While working fathers heard reports about events from at least one child on 66 percent of occasions they arrived back home, mothers heard at least one child's report 93 percent of the time. These differences suggest that the children were more willing or perhaps more used to sharing their experiences with their mothers than with their fathers.
Logistic Behaviors. Although children infrequently brought up a logistical matter in the first moments of their parents' arrival home, it is striking that they engaged returning mothers in the logistics of homework assignments, lost belongings, items to purchase, and the like twice as often as they engaged father in such concerns (22 vs. 11 percent). Again this difference may indicate that the children had different expectations of their mothers and fathers or even of their relative pragmatic usefulness.