Kids are at a cognitive and behavioral disadvantage when their parents work erratic hours, a new study has found. (Photo: David P. Hall/Corbis)
Parents who work “irregular” hours — unpredictable shifts for which they are called in or sent home with little notice, especially at night — can inadvertently lead to psychological or developmental fallout for their children, a new study from the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, has found.
“When parents can’t predict when they will or won’t be working, their entire home lives are disrupted — they engage less with their children in critical activities like reading and telling stories,” said co-author and University of New South Wales lecturer Leila Morsy in a press release about the findings. “In many states, parents working irregular schedules even lose eligibility for child care subsidies.”
The study — part of a larger project by Morsy and Economic Policy Institute research associate Richard Rothstein, looking at how social class characteristics effect children’s development and achievement to suggest policy changes — found that kids of all ages can suffer fallout when parents are called in for erratic work hours. For toddlers, that can mean hampered sensory perception, learning and problem-solving skills, and verbal communication. Young teenagers, meanwhile, are more prone to depression and risky behaviors, such as smoking or drinking, when parents work at night.
As the study points out, “computer software now enables retail, restaurant, service, and other firms to predict hourly customer demand and delivery schedules with precision, encouraging employers to create ‘just-in-time’ schedules in which workers are called in or sent home on short notice. By preventing many parents from adequately caring for their children, such practices adversely affect child and adolescent development.”
The researchers note that erratic work schedules are more common among workers who are black or less educated, as well as young single mothers making low wages; one-third of moms with adolescents at home, for example, receive a week or less notice regarding their weekly schedules, adding to anxiety, exhaustion, and stress levels.
“Anything that causes stress to parents is going to do harm to their children,” Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, tells Yahoo Parenting. “In this case, it deprives children of the time they need with a parent at important moments, such as getting ready for school or at bedtime.”
The biggest takeaway from the findings, he says, is that policy changes and new laws are needed to prevent employers from disregarding the scheduling needs of their workers, especially those who are parents. “Employers should avoid these practices,” Eisenbrey stresses. “When you change a schedule without notice, childcare plans get disrupted or are impossible to even make, especially when it comes to high quality care, which requires regular drop-off and pickup times.” Many states including New York, for example, already have laws requiring employers to receive overtime for unexpected hours or to pay a worker if a shift is canceled with little notice.
The findings are also important, he says, for the sake of the effect they have on schools. “If you have huge disparities — race, income — then it makes it very hard for a school system in a low-income area to overcome [low achievement],” he notes. “Yet we expect that just by firing teachers whose students have low-performance levels we will change achievement outcomes, which is not fair, and rather stupid.”
But how can the study’s findings serve parents who find themselves hampered and stressed by crazy work schedules — short of making them feel even worse about their erratic presence?
“Rather than taking the position of guilt or shame here, parents can look at [the study] as a cautionary tale,” parenting expert and family physician Deborah Gilboa tells Yahoo Parenting. “It can help you realize, OK, this is something to pay attention to — what are my kids doing while I’m at work?”
More people have these types of work schedules than not, Gilboa, author of Get the Behavior You Want… Without Being the Parent You Hate! believes, and there are various ways to be proactive. “For starters, ask yourself if you are using your nonstandard working hours to your advantage,” she suggests, such as to go to school for pickup or for afternoon parent-teacher conferences, or meeting your kid’s bus after school. “Also ask if you’re using your work breaks intentionally, especially with the technology available. Set reminders to check in with your kids in fun ways that go beyond asking if they’ve done their homework — send a friendly text saying you’re thinking about them, tag them on social media.”
When you’re the parent of older kids, you can make an effort to involve them in conversations about schedule challenges, Gilboa suggests. “Ask, ‘What can we do so that we feel more connected?’” And when it comes to little ones, do the best that you can when it comes to getting them as much consistency as possible — such as aiming to have the same sitter all the time, even the hours are not regular — and try to enlist others for support. “Whether it’s a grandparent, a teacher, your pediatrician, or someone at daycare,” she says, letting others know that you’d love help monitoring your child’s development and behavior can go a long way in feeling less alone.