When children go to work

There is a fashionable new theory that children should visit their parents at work, just to see what the folks do when they aren't mowing the lawn, or mopping the kitchen floor, or saying, ''No, you can't borrow the car tonight.''

A lot of parents are less than thrilled at the idea of their children witnessing what one enthusiast calls ''the hidden side of a parent's life known as work.'' They're not sure they want their friends to know exactly what they do for a living - certainly not their children.

Some parents say they'd rather reverse roles and see their children at work - that'll be the day!

Years ago a romantic father of our acquaintance took his seven-year-old son to his office. ''I want my son to see me functioning - in charge, at the height of my powers,'' he said, or heady words to that effect.

Everybody in the office cooperated - keeping his phone jingling and dashing in and out with important papers for the big man to sign.

Largely ignoring this mime, the boy kept busy on his own. He learned - almost too well - how to tip back in his father's chair. He unearthed an airline packet of stale peanuts in the top left drawer. He fell in love with a stone toad paperweight.

To this day, the boy - now in his mid-twenties - remembers terrible tasting peanuts, a slightly wobbly swivel chair, and a toad that stares at you whenever he thinks of his father at work.

Children will notice what they want to notice, and usually it's not what parents intend. A parent's friends - like the colleagues of the toad-owner - may pour on the flattery: ''Your father (mother) is a mighty important person around here. We don't know what we'd do without him (her).'' It's no use. A child knows better.

The first child we ever saw witnessing a parent at work was the 10-year-old daughter of the commanding officer of a Navy ship being commissioned. While the band played and flags got hoisted and father held the center of the stage amid all the saluting and countersaluting, his daughter turned to mother during - alas - a quiet moment and whispered: ''Daddy's acting very silly.''

If a father in a new uniform, with gold braid, can't awe his child, what working father can?

In the old days a child was introduced to the working world by a class trip to the nearest bread factory. Why was it always a bread factory? Hard to say. Very few sixth-graders grew up to become bakers. Still, the aroma was delicious. The bakers, after years of experience, threw marvelous winks. And the tour ended with free samples.

What child of that generation could be blamed for thinking all adults were teachers or bakers or mothers, with a couple of policemen for the crossings? Yet maybe old-style parents were smart to keep their working selves in the distance - a legend.

We suspect that children prefer to learn about the working world through the examples of other children's parents. We happened to be present once when two daughters of Joanne Woodward watched mother act. As far as we could see, they were just as bored as the kids we've watched glaze over while their father explained: ''See Daddy take the papers from this basket and put them in that basket.''

Way back when, of course, father didn't have to say: ''See Daddy put the shoe on the horse.'' And mother didn't have to say: ''See Mommy milk the cow.''

A child did not become a visitor with a pass in an alien world, somehow being sold something.

There are risks to this situation. We know a man who took his son to the office once a month. The lad became so appalled by workaday routines that he resolved never to leave school. Both parents still work to finance the soaring cost of endless graduate degrees.

We're not saying: don't bring your child to work. We're just saying: be careful.

The moral of the story is: if you feel like Sisyphus, don't let your child see your stone until you're ready for him to push it.

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