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Learning to Work: How Parents Nurture the Transition from School-to-Work

A Research Update for Parents


Wendy L. Way
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Marilyn R. Rossman
University of Minnesota
National Center for Research in Vocational Education
University of California at Berkeley
2030 Addison Street, Suite 500
Berkeley, CA 94704-1058

Supported by
The Office of Vocational and Adult Education
U.S. Department of Education

February 1996


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Family Gifts and Dreams

All parents have dreams for their children. Openly communicated dreams have a powerful effect, but more subtle things that go on in every family may be an even stronger influence on children. As the U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley said, "Families are life's first teachers, often of lessons that are never forgotten."

Most people would readily agree that parental involvement in children's education, starting at birth, is an essential way to nourish children's achievements. Some ways for families to help their children's education include:

These are more obvious ways parents help their children. However, the day-to-day patterns of family relationship may be the most significant gift a family can make. These include the never forgotten lessons in decision-making, good or poor work habits, conflict resolution, and communication skills, that children carry with them their whole life. And families give their children a context for interpreting the realities of work by discussing their feelings about what it is like to work.

Studies over the last 25 years have shown that the family exerts a profound influence on a person's career. The family strongly conditions education, which in turn conditions occupational life. Work/family relationships are still very often misunderstood or too narrowly conceived. A new study from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, Lessons from Life's First Teacher: The Role of the Family in Adolescent and Adult Readiness for School-To-Work Transition offers the richest, most up-to-date and detailed analysis of how families contribute to work-related learning. This research brief highlights conclusions from that study.

Two Views of Family Involvement

A limited model of parent-to-child influence has prevailed until recently. This is the "social mold" model, in which parents try to shape their children in a particular image. They do this by modeling appropriate career behaviors, providing enriching experiences, and supporting the development of desirable work-related attitudes. (Many children, however, may flounder as they try to make vocational choices they perceive will please their parents.)

In another approach, rather than steering their children in a predetermined direction, parents try to prepare their children to be autonomous and successful in shaping their own lives. Development is seen as a process of relating, with parents and children interacting to share and create mutual understanding. In this way, youth can get a sense of gateways or channels to an ever-widening range of experiences, as opposed to one narrow track.

This way of parenting is demanding, and takes time to learn. But teaching children to be self-reliant is better suited to the new world of work, in which individuals need to be well-prepared for transition, adaptation, and change.

Family Pressures

Many parents face increased pressure in their own work life. They may have to work longer hours. They may be coping with work environments that are not supportive of family needs, or they may have to adapt to loss of worker benefits or to a decrease in job security.

Parents' lives may be more complex and demanding than ever before. At the same time, a great deal of social and personal pressure is placed on parents to do well for their children. Parents are expected to prepare their children for the lifelong process of acquiring skills, knowledge, and values in order to be successful in their adult life, to hold jobs and achieve self-sufficiency. This is a tall order. Public finger-pointing which suggests that parental failure is the cause of poor achievement among youth only makes parents' already difficult balancing act harder.

Ways Families Aid Work Readiness

Families can make significant contributions towards the welfare of their members and the strength of the national workforce. How? Families with these behaviors strongly encourage work readiness. These families can be called proactive.

More inactive families don't have an equally positive effect on school to work transition and actually work against it. These families are unable to function well either because they use a laissez-faire approach to family matters, because they cannot set guidelines, or because they don't pursue interests that involve places and persons outside of the family. Such traits make it more difficult for adolescents to develop self-knowledge, as well as to differentiate their own goals from their parents' goals.

Dominating families are a third broad category. In these families, parents make all the important decisions, and there is strict punishment for breaking the rules. Students from such families tend to indicate some post-high school plans, perhaps as a result of family pressure. However, these families do not specifically promote work readiness.

Families Supporting Education

Families which interact at school and provide support increase work readiness. The study showed that young people who appeared more ready for the transition from school to work came from families which had: The adults with the greatest readiness for transition to employment also reported that their families had: Families which promote education and positive attitudes towards school work help youth develop learning strategies that will improve their work readiness. These learning strategies include finding classes that are challenging and where new things are learned; thinking of the class material as a starting point, and developing ideas beyond the assignment; and keeping on working even when the class is uninteresting.

Other strategies proactive families use to support learning are providing opportunities for family members to show off scholarly abilities at home; finding ways to instill confidence and expectations that family members will do well on difficult material, assignments, and tests; and making family members feel good about themselves.

Families Promoting Good Work Values

Family is an important source of values about work and working. Families which promote strong work values develop work readiness in their children. The following are examples of work values found among study participants.

Voices from Families

These "voices" illustrate the various roles parents and other family members play in nurturing transition readiness. Most are positive, but some have negative aspects too. These quotations come from interviews conducted with 31 adolescents as part of the study, about six months after their graduation from high school. These perceptions reflect the three aspects of family experience previously mentioned:
  1. Parent-to-child guidance and support;
  2. Interactions between parents and children;
  3. Family as a place to interpret reality.

Financial Support

I wasn't going to go to college 'cause I didn't have the money. So my Mom said that she'd pay for it, and she did. She said she'd pay for it as long as she can.

Conveyed Expectations

My parents both have jobs that they really like, they're with companies that they like and they're doing things they're good at. They always kind of expected us to earn our way along. You know, we haven't been given a free ride.

Communicated "Sound Bites"

Do the best you can and always be there. Do what you're supposed to do. Keep your mouth quiet.

Provided Support and Interest

They've always pretty much stuck behind me or any of us, if it's what makes us happy. Even if they know it's wrong. They'll advise us it's wrong, but then they'll say, I support you.

Pushed or Controlled

They wanted me to go to college, because no one in my family has ever been to college and they wanted me to be the first, and they pushed me to go to school and you know, do good. They really pushed.

Modeled Work Behaviors

Oh, yeah, they were real work-oriented and my mom's always worked full-time. My step dad works a couple of jobs. I mean, work's always been a big thing. There's nobody lazy in my household. I learned to work hard.

Anxiety about the Future

There was a lot of fuss about my decision. My dad's not for it. He thinks it's too dangerous.

Illustrated Realities of Work

I think about my sister. After she graduated from high school, she just got married. I see how hard it is for them financially, just her and her husband, just to have one person working. I think that made me kinda want not to depend on one person financially.

Assistance for Families

As these "voices" from adolescents show, families have a powerful influence on the work readiness of youth. Although work and family have historically been viewed as separate spheres, this is clearly not the case. Readiness for occupational work is largely dependent upon the work of the family. Parents can and should be a powerful force in enhancing work-related learning.

We would like to encourage all parents to reflect on the ways their family operates, and to consider additional possibilities for helping their children prepare for the world of work.


There are several sources of assistance for parents to use to enhance the family's capacity to nurture work-related development. These include: The summary information contained in this update has been extracted from other manuscripts developed by the project directors, Wendy L. Way, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Marilyn Martin Rossman, University of Minnesota-St. Paul.

For further reading on how parents can help nurture work readiness, see the following works:

Berger, E.H. (1995). Parents as partners in education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Clarke, J.I. (1993). Help! For parents of school-age children and teenagers. San Francisco: Harper.

Elkind, D. (1993). Parenting your teenager. New York: Ballantine Books.

Grissmer, D.W., Kirby, S.N., Berends, M. & Williamson, S. (1994). Student achievement and the changing American family. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Patterson, G. & Forgatch, M. (1987). Parents and adolescents living together. Part 1: The basics. Eugene, OR: Castalia Publishing Company.

Rich, D. (1988). MegaSkills: In school and in life--the best gifts you can give your child. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company

Way, W.L. & Rossmann, M.M. (1995). Lessons from life's first teacher: The role of the family in adolescent and adult readiness for school-to-work transition. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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