As's recent profiles of female founders with kids makes clear -- when it comes to combining entrepreneurship and parenthood, the juggle is real. These articles are full of professional women texting from the delivery room, joining conference calls from soccer matches, and lugging carry-ons full of breast milk through airport security.

No wonder that when pollsters ask parents how they're doing, half of dads and 56 percent of moms report they're stressed out about balancing it all.

What can be done to alleviate this national epidemic of parental guilt? Adding a few hours to the day would be great (and hey Washington, decent family leave policies would certainly help too), but barring either of those miracles occurring, the best I can offer is reassuring science.

Parents in the thick of raising young families and building careers often end up feeling like they're doing neither well, but research shows time away from your kids probably isn't harming their happiness. In fact, the biggest factor when it comes to children's well-being is something you can control -- how passionate you are about your work, and how focused you are on your kids when you do spend time with them.

Time matters less than attitude. 

That's the primary take away of a recent HBR post from Wharton professor Stewart D. Friedman, the co-author of a classic study on how parents' work affects their kids. The now 20-year-old research followed 900 families and found that parents' passion for their work is actually linked to fewer behavior problems and greater mental health among kids, irrespective of whether their work limits the hours at home (within reason, of course, 100-hour weeks are awful for everyone involved).

The study "found children were better off when parents cared about work as a source of challenge, creativity, and enjoyment... without regard to the time spent," writes Friedman.

This was especially true of fathers: "to the extent that a father was performing well in and feeling satisfied with his job, his children were likely to demonstrate relatively few behavior problems, again, independent of how long he was working."

But while passionate engagement with work actually seems to improve outcomes for kids, that only holds, Friedman and his collaborators found, if when you're at home, you're actually mentally at home. Being passionate is great, being obsessed and on your phone all the time, unsurprisingly, isn't.

"Children were more likely to show behavioral problems if their fathers were overly involved psychologically in their careers," insists Friedman. "A father's psychological availability, or presence, which is noticeably absent when he is on his digital device -- was also linked with children having emotional and behavioral problems."

Interestingly, for mothers it wasn't happiness at work that correlated best with children's happiness. Instead, it was having some control over their work, as well as time to spend on themselves. Moms, the research underlines, should put on their their oxygen mask first and not feel guilty about leaving dirty dishes in the sink to slip off to the gym or for a night out with friends.  

The results, though slightly different for each gender, jive overall with other findings showing parents overestimate how much "quality time" kids need. The most important thing, this research shows, is that when you're with your children you listen and respond to them. That matters far more than the sheer quantity of hours.

The good news for parents: you control what matters. 

All of this adds up to happy news for parents. You probably have limited control over your work hours, but you do have control over your attitude and attention. And these are the factors that matter when it comes to outcomes for kids.

Friedman closes his article with wise advice based on this research-backed truth: "if we care about how our careers are affecting our children's mental health, we can and should focus on the value we place on our careers and experiment with creative ways to be available, physically and psychologically, to our children, though not necessarily in more hours with them."

Published on: Nov 28, 2018
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