Americans are taking less vacation than at any point in the last forty years—just 16 vacation days today, down from an average of over 20 days taken 15 years ago. America’s Lost Week is wiping out vacation traditions and taking a heavy toll, particularly on children.
In The Work Martyr’s Children: How Kids Are Harmed by America’s Lost Week, kids weigh in firsthand on their parents’ work habits and what it means to miss out on the quality time vacation provides. The findings are alarming and should serve as a call to action for working parents across the country.
According to American kids, parents are bringing work stress home and are not disconnecting from the office. While this harms American families today, the example parents are setting may have the unintended consequence of creating the next generation of work martyrs.
Compounding matters is America’s overall vacation decline. With millions of working parents admitting that it has been more than a year since their last family vacation, kids are missing out on time with their parents that they treasure most, and the memories that come with it.
Childhood memories and family bonds should not be the collateral damage of overwork. This study’s findings are a tool for parents to better understand how failing to take time off affects their children and how to make changes that will strengthen family bonds.
GfK conducted a survey of 754 children ages 8-14 using GfK’s KnowledgePanel®, a large-scale online panel based on a representative random sample of the U.S. population. Parents were screened at the outset of the survey with a set of brief questions and to obtain permission for their child to participate. The survey was conducted July 30 to August 10, 2015.
To further explore the issue, GfK conducted interviews with noted family experts: Dr. Lotte Bailyn, a published author and professor emerita at the MIT Sloan School of Management; Dr. Gilda Carle, a relationship expert and professor emerita at New York’s Mercy College; and Michael Gurian, a marriage and family counselor and co-founder of The Gurian Institute.
Working parents may think they are shielding their children from work stress, but a commanding six in seven children report seeing their parents bring work stress home. Further, 75 percent of kids say that their parent is unable to stop working while at home.
“Overwork has all sorts of negative consequences,” said Gurian. “It’s a mental and physical stress issue, and if you have kids, it’s dangerous for them.”
In addition to dealing with parental stress, kids cope with their own stress. Eight in ten children (79%) reported experiencing some degree of stress in their daily lives. Parents who want to help their kids reduce stress should consider using a vacation day. A strong 77 percent of kids report feeling no stress when their parents take time off to spend time with them.
Low-stress opportunities, like vacations, are critical to parent-child relationships. “Good relationships emerge out of simply having interactions with the people in our families under conditions that are not highly stressed,” said Bailyn.
Nearly nine in ten (86%) children say they understand when their parents’ work intrudes at home, similar to the 96 percent of adults who reported understanding their significant other’s work intrusions in Project: Time Off’s report, The Work Martyr’s Affair.
But children are more disappointed by those intrusions than adults. While one in three (36%) couples argue over the time needed for work versus quality time for each other, six in ten (59%) kids say they are upset when their parents prioritize work over time with them.
This disappointment does not change as children grow older. Children reported being equally upset when work interferes with their parents’ ability to be there for planned events, whether the child surveyed was eight or 14.
An overwhelming 82% of kids surveyed said they want their parents deeply involved in their lives. When looking at the intensity of involvement, one in four (24%) children said that on a 10-point scale, they wanted their parents’ involvement to be at a 10. Six in ten (61%) said it should at least be at eight.
Nine out of ten children (89%) who are between eight and ten-years old report wanting their parents involved. That number drops slightly for 11 and 12-year olds, to 80 percent, and to 74 percent for 13 and 14-year olds, but still shows a strong desire for heavy parental involvement.
Time together is particularly important for teens, as it helps them understand what Gurian calls the family story. “If we don’t give kids this time together, they’re not getting the family story,” shared Gurian. “The kids that give me the most worry are the ones moving into puberty—those years are especially sad when they don’t have a family story to tell, because their own lives are in such turmoil internally.”
Gurian added that when teen children are given that bedrock family story, it gives them a secure bond, “They will be more stable kids, they are going to have an easier adolescence—less drugs, less alcohol, less crime. That’s how visceral this is.”
Most kids (61%) want to spend quality time with parents during vacation; time that is necessary to building a strong bond. “With children, you can’t strengthen your relationship without time,” said Bailyn.
Children understand the benefits of vacation for themselves and for their parents. In their regular lives, just 19 percent say they are in a very good mood. This number skyrockets to 60 percent when their parent takes time off from work to spend with them.
“Their moods are different and it takes a while to get them out of their shells,” Bailyn explained. “In a strange way, particularly with younger children, the best relationships come when there’s enough quantity time to drive quality interactions.”
Kids also feel their parents are significantly happier when they take time off to be with them. Only 14 percent of children characterize their parents mood as “very good” in their regular life, but when their parent takes time off work, half (50%) of kids say that their parent is in a very good mood.
The children surveyed were asked to grade their working parents on how good a job they do when it comes to spending quality time with their kids. A strong 46 percent of kids gave their parents an “A” grade, far more generous than working parents are on themselves—just 28 percent gave themselves an “A.”
While children are more approving of their parents’ performance, that approval slides the more often parents miss events. Fifty-eight percent of kids who report their parents never miss activities because of work give their parents an “A.” That number slips to just 29 percent for kids who said their parents sometimes or always miss events because of work.
Pulling up the grade does not have to be difficult. When children were asked to describe the “best or coolest thing” a parent has done with them, many of the responses were simple things: camping, trips to amusements parks, zoos, aquariums, and other attractions, and parents joining school field trips or scouting trips.
An 11-year-old girl in Pennsylvania summed up the sentiments of hundreds of respondents nicely, “It doesn’t matter what we’re doing, it only matters that we’re having fun.”
Despite its importance to children, nearly a quarter (22%) of working parents admitted that it had been more than a year since their last family vacation.
The pressures that keep working parents at the office are consistent with that of all American workers, as identified in Project: Time Off’s Overwhelmed America study: fears of “coming back to a mountain of work” (29%) and concerns “no one else can do the job” (20%) top the list.
Taking just one more day off can make a difference, as the survey revealed that children notice when their parents aren’t at events. Fifty-nine percent of kids say their parents miss events because of work. Further, nearly six in ten (58%) children can detail the last activity their parents missed.
The takeaways from this report are clear: quality time with children matters, and the easiest way to make that time is to put unused vacation days to use.
Whether parents use time off for the family adventure of a lifetime or simply to be at opening night of the school play, it is good for both parents and children alike.
Gurian summed up the benefits of taking time off with children: “One, you will be less stressed, so you’re just going to be a better parent. Two, your kids will get all of this time with you, all this bonding and attachment, making them more stable, secure, healthy kids.”
America’s Lost Week hurts children today and sets the wrong example for tomorrow. It’s time to make a change before all that is left is time for regret.