Last Friday was Take Your Kids to Work Day, formerly Take Your Daughters to Work Day. I participated as a mentor, talking to kids and answering questions about how to combine art and technology in jobs at places like Microsoft.

Now, it’s no secret that I’m pretty passionate about this kind of work, seeing as I’ve spent multiple years on the Board of IGNITE (Inspiring Girls Now In Technology Evolution). It’s important to give kids enough information about what’s out there for them, in the hopes of empowering them to get passionate and make the right choices.

But at the risk of sounding ungrateful, I don’t think Microsoft’s version of BYKTWD was particularly helping along those lines. It was essentially “Take Your Kids to the Carnival” day. Where I saw maybe 12 kids in an hour in the mentoring part of the event (2-3 every 15 minutes), there were easily 10 times that in line to play the Kinect at the same time. And those that weren’t in line for the Kinect were doing potato sack races or hula hoop competitions outside, or waiting in line for one of the many bouncy castles. Fire engines and police squad cars. A squirrel mascot (what?) An Olympian swimmer to take pictures with the kids. There was even a Seafair booth and boat set up – what the heck does that have to do with working at Microsoft? It read more like a physical fitness fair.

The view from Microsoft’s Commons soccer field during the Bring Your Kids to Work Day festivities.

I doubt this was limited to just Microsoft – I’m willing to bet other big tech companies have taken this approach too. (“We’re fun! We’re exciting! Your parents are cooler than your friends’ parents!) And in a way their hearts are in a good place – they want to show kids a good time and show their support to working parents. But the entire point of the day, the whole spirit seems to be lost. We aren’t giving our kids a good idea of what our work is like and what they might do when they grow up. No wonder there are articles about the youngest generation in the workforce looking for jobs to be “social” and “fun”, or else.

Don’t get me wrong, work can be fun. But working at a tech company has nothing to do with potato sack races or bouncy castles. And that doesn’t mean they’re bad jobs or that kids wouldn’t be interested in them – we have to give them a little more credit, especially the older ones. In our desire to show kids a good time, we seem to be depriving them of the whole benefit we sought to bestow.

And I’m a bit sad that the focus of the event has gone broad – the need for girls to get exposed to careers in science and technology has not gone away, but the sorts of activities I saw going at BYKTWD weren’t well balanced to appeal equally to both genders. Why the focus on physical activities? Why not offer some hands-on programming workshops? Those actually generate a ton of interest. The possibilities are many.

Pop quiz: What does a Seafair boat have to do with working at Microsoft?

I’m still glad I participated; I got one thank-you letter from a kind and involved father about the positive impact I had on his daughter. Who was bright, inquisitive, and fun. I know some age groups are not quite ready for things like 1:1 mentoring or job shadows, but those little 10-15 minute conversations even made a difference. It’s just that a sadly small number of kids were getting THAT sort of experience on Friday. And I’m glad the volunteers put that mentoring piece together; it’s new this year and thanks to their work. But it is still such a missed opportunity.

If you know of a child, especially girls, who didn’t get to see what work is really like this past BYKTWD, consider taking them in for an actual job shadow. You’d be surprised what a difference it can make. And sure, you can take them out for ice cream or bouncy castles. Just wait till the workday is done. 😉