Parenting Is My Job

Families that work and play together

By Timothy G. Habbershon

Did you ever think of your family business as a playground, a summer camp, or a new business incubator? If not, maybe it's time, for your kids' sake, to reframe your thinking. Most parents with young children are constantly trying to find new activities to share with them. For family business owners, that quest has more complexity and urgency. It used to be that business was family and everyone was expected to work together. Today the frustrations and fears associated with bringing children into the company are part of running a family business. Should your kids be expected to work in the business? When should they start? What if they don't want to work in the business? And how much do you really want them there, anyway?

It's more useful to evaluate this situation as a parenting strategy than as a family business issue. Families with businesses have a unique parenting platform, but the approach must be correct in order to use it.

Cindy Iannarelli is from a second-generation Italian family. Her father's dry cleaning business grew into a small chain, but his sudden death brought Cindy and her brother back into the business. After Cindy and her brother started families, her attention turned to creating a positive experience for the kids in the business. Today, in Pittsburgh, her brother runs the family companies, and "Dr. Cindy," now with a PhD focusing on family businesses, helps entrepreneurs use their companies to raise their children.

Through the years, Cindy and I have discussed some do's and don'ts for family business parents. First, it's never too early to expose kids to the business. Just make sure the activities are age-appropriate and that you are in nurturing mode, not business mode. Kids want to help and understand what their parents do, so let them do some fun jobs and pay them a little. Later, responsibility and money can increase. But then parents have to move out of the family hierarchy and start behaving more like professional peers.

Families should also take the opportunity to help kids act like entrepreneurs. Young children love to start and build new things, and teens can gain experience and buff their résumés by starting businesses. The goal is to teach kids life skills, not just have them be useful in the business.

A less conventional approach is to run a summer camp focused around the company. The camps can bring extended family members together for a fun encounter that builds lasting bonds. Dr. Cindy suggests adopting a theme, taking field trips to suppliers and customers, doing simple business projects, and some community service.

There are also a few don'ts: Don't complain about the business all the time—why would kids want to be involved in something that sounds so bad? Don't put working in the business on a par with household chores. Don't be in parental mode in the workplace; no kid wants to be with their "parents" all the time. Don't link working in the business with their future careers. Instead, it should be about learning, growing, and having fun. And don't assume your kids will dislike working with you. What will irritate them are parents who won't look at life from a kid's perspective.

Timothy G. Habbershon is the director of the Institute for Family Enterprising at the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship, Babson College.

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