Parents who lack control at work may become more controlling at home

Needed: more perks.
Needed: more perks.
Image: Reuters/Jagadeesh NV
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Working at an office job typically involves giving up some measure of control—whether it involves abiding by a dress code, tracking billable hours, or arriving at 9AM sharp.

But research shows that workplaces that tilt too far into micromanaging territory wind up with unhappy, stressed-out, unmotivated, low-performing employees. And a recent article by Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of Originals, argues denying employees autonomy also affects what kinds of parents they are at home.

Grant writes:

Deprive people of control at work, and they become more controlling at home. But give people choices about what to work on — or how, when and where to do it — and they become better parents. Creating jobs that allow for self-direction, for independent thought and judgment, can make people more supportive and flexible at home.

Grant cites research from sociologists Melvin Kohn and Carmi Schooler, who during the 1970s interviewed thousands of male workers from a variety of professions about how their  jobs affected them psychologically. The study found that men who had little agency or control over their own work were more likely to endorse authoritarian views, including the belief that children must be taught absolute obedience to their parents. The authors concluded that “job affects man more than man affects job”; in other words, the jobs we choose can shape our personalities. Another study found the same pattern with women.

Still, it was possible that more authoritarian types would be drawn to more authoritarian jobs. To unpack which way the causality worked, Kohn and Schooler followed up with the participants a decade later. Some subjects had changed their views: If their jobs had afforded them more choice, and freedom, they became less authoritarian at home. But those with tightly controlled jobs tended to become more controlling at home. Being told “just get it done” somehow translated to “because I said so” at home.

Striking the right balance between high-authority and laissez-faire parenting is no easy task. Our level of control at home is deeply influenced by cultural, sociological and economic forces, not to mention genetics and environment. For many of us, discipline changes with every child and at every age. Anyone who claims to have the perfect formula is full of it.

But just as we’re troubled by the rise of authoritarianism in our politics, we shouldn’t want too much of it in our homes. Evidence suggests both authoritarian and permissive parenting is bad for kids, and is associated with higher levels of depression (authoritative parenting may be the Goldilocks formula—just right). Common sense suggests issuing edicts all the time is futile: if you make all the decisions in your home, your kids never learn to make sensible decisions themselves. Let them see our failures—a very anti-authoritarian approach—and they learn to see failure as normal, thus empowering them to persevere.

Grant points out that stifling assembly-line model of work still exists today; it’s simply shifted from the manufacturing industry to service jobs. That makes the millennial cry for better work-life balance and autonomy on the job all the more vital: If people do not feel they have some autonomy and agency over their professional lives, they may well take it out on their kids.