Work

Why (Most) Kids Don’t Belong at the Office

A lot can go wrong when parents bring their offspring to work.

A hassled worker surrounded by wacky kids
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

I’m not sure there’s any work topic I write about that’s more divisive than people bringing their kids to work with them. (Well, maybe dogs at work, but it’s close.)

Parents who want to bring their kids to the office are rare, but some try to make it work when day care falls through, a child is sick, or school lets out early. And sometimes it’s just fine! But in other cases … not so much.

Lots of adults have fond memories of going to work with their parents when they were small—playing with the copier, using all those office supplies—but aren’t entirely pleased when their co-workers bring in their own kids. It turns out, kids can be noisy! And it can be tough to focus on work if your colleagues’ kids are anything other than quiet and well-behaved. Here’s one account I received about how kids in the office can go awry:

One of my coworkers brings her daughter to work every day and it’s driving me crazy. … Every day for at least an hour, often longer, the office fills up with giggles and child-conversation, while she tells her mom all about her day. Some days the kid is cranky and so I get to listen to an hour of the mom shushing the child or otherwise trying to appease her. … Our entryway becomes like a romper room, which has been an issue when I’ve had clients coming through in the late afternoon with nowhere to sit because the kid has spread out her homework/activities. It also effectively puts the mom out of commission for that period, at least for our working relationship—she can work in her cube, but it’s weird stopping by to talk about projects or have a meeting with her with the kid parked in a beanbag squeezed in the tiny cubicle.

This happens every day, regardless of what else is going on. I’ve been on calls before where I have difficulty hearing the person on the other end because right across the cubicle wall there’s a conversation about fractions going on. Our office isn’t a great environment for a kid. Just today, in fact, after hearing some lighthearted jokes that were a little past PG-13, the mom sent a group email asking everyone to remember there were “little ears” listening.

Think that’s bad? Here’s another:

My boss has an almost-5-year-old son, and she brings him into the office … a lot. It happens in spurts, but if you were to add it up and average it out, I’d think it would be about once a week. I work in an open bullpen, so even when he’s in her office, he’s usually making noise or listening to an iPad at a loud volume, when he’s not running around the office. Today was extra fun, however, as I was standing and talking to her and another colleague about social stuff, and her son wandered up and punched me in the groin. My boss immediately forced him to apologize and then let him go to wander off and “explore” the rest of the office and picked back up in the conversation like nothing happened.

Having kids in the office doesn’t typically result in groin injuries, but it’s true that kids haven’t absorbed the office norms that (most) adults adhere to. And not all parents are great judges of how disruptive their kids might be to their colleagues.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of variation on this, and in some offices it seems to go just fine:

I once worked in an office that was all cubicles of IT programmers. One of the guys had obviously worked out something with the boss because he would bring his daughter in about once every 2 or 3 months. I never knew she was there until about halfway through the day when I went by his cubicle where she was either working quietly on a laptop (not one of ours) or watching something with headphones. Now, I know every child is not like this, but she was the perfect example of how this can work in the right situation.

Some offices even go out of their way to make it easy on parents who need to bring kids in with them for a day or two:

In my last office, during snow days or school vacation some of my co-workers would bring their children in. They would commandeer an unused conference room, close the door, and spend the day quietly playing and reading. I would go the majority of the day without even knowing they were there. Our director had reservations about people telecommuting so this was the compromise, and I think it worked out very well—so I think it depends on the office lay-out and children in question whether it’s distracting or not.

It’s a kindness to working parents to offer this kind of flexibility in emergency situations. It can also be good for employers, both in keeping people productive when they otherwise might need to stay home and lose a day of work, and in building loyalty that helps retain employees with kids. But offices that do this need to be thoughtful about minimizing the impact and disruption on other employees, which might mean anything from a conference room set aside for kids’ use all the way to on-site day care.

It’s also true that plenty of parents work in offices that aren’t kid-friendly, and we don’t give them, or parents as a whole, many options when a child is sick or day care falls through. Not everyone has access to emergency, last-minute child care or the ability to work from home while caring for a child, which means those parents are stuck taking sick leave or vacation time that they may not have (or may need to save for their own illnesses). As a society, we’ve left these parents on their own without many options—so it’s no wonder that some people are occasionally willing to sacrifice a cubemate’s focus for the day.