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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
California at Berkeley
2030 Addison Street, Suite 500
The Office of Vocational and Adult Education
Department of Education
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Family Gifts and Dreams
- Two Views of Family Involvement
- Family Pressures
- Ways Families Aid Work Readiness
- Families Supporting Education
- Families Promoting Good Work Values
- Voices from Families
- Financial Support
- Conveyed Expectations
- Communicated "Sound Bites"
- Provided Support and Interest
- Pushed or Controlled
- Modeled Work Behaviors
- Anxiety about the Future
- Illustrated Realities of Work
- Assistance for Families
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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
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.
- limiting TV viewing to ensure time for homework
- supporting school events
- encouraging continued education.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Sociability: having a group of friends, and enjoying being with
- Expressiveness: sharing personal problems and giving voice to thoughts and
- Cohesion: feeling together as a group, getting along well, and helping and
supporting each other.
- Democratic Decision Making:
checking with other family members before making decisions, and
making rules together.
- Active Recreational Orientation:
having hobbies, going to movies, sporting events, and so on.
- Locus of Control: feeling that decisions are their own, not forced on
them, and encouraging individuals to develop in their own ways.
- Conflict Management: having few fights, and responding to differences
without losing tempers or hitting.
- Engagement: keeping track of other family members.
- Family Idealization: feeling that the family is important and
- Intellectual-Cultural Orientation: valuing music, art, and literature.
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 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:
- asked regularly about or helped with homework.
- attended school events and asked school personnel about their child's
- helped developed potential job skills (such as photography) by
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.
- provided them with financial and/or emotional support.
- made informal contacts for them regarding exploration for occupational
- showed understanding by recognizing the need for study time and space.
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.
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.
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
- Choose work where there's opportunity for advancement.
- Match personal interests and skills to the job requirements.
- Find work that gives the chance to do something personally
- Be your own person; don't be overly dependent.
- Accept differences among people.
- Be helpful to others.
- Be responsible for your own actions.
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
- Parent-to-child guidance and support;
- Interactions between parents and children;
- Family as a place to interpret reality.
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
Do the best you can and always be there. Do what you're supposed to do. Keep
your mouth quiet.
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.
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.
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.
There was a lot of fuss about my decision. My dad's not for it. He thinks
it's too dangerous.
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.
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
- Parent education classes to develop parenting skills.
- Support for workforce preparation offered by state and local service
agencies. Social service, job service, and vocational rehabilitation centers,
for example, are available regionally in most areas. Many of these agencies
offer coordinated family support services which combine job training, health
care, financial assistance, and child care.
- Family-focused research and advocacy organizations.
For further reading on how parents can help nurture work readiness, see the
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
Grissmer, D.W., Kirby, S.N., Berends, M. & Williamson, S. (1994).
Student achievement and the changing American family. Santa Monica, CA:
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
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