People were writing to ask me what I thought of this, frankly, moronic report in the WaPo last month on how it doesn’t matter how much time parents spend with kids. I didn’t respond then because I just didn’t have time to do a proper take-down and, honestly, the findings ran so counter to every other study on the subject for the last 30 years I just didn’t think it was worth it. Fortunately, no less an authority than the Brookings Institution decided to do the fisking for me.
There are two related problems here. First, the media reports have drawn conclusions not supported by the results of the study. Second, the study itself, which contradicts a sizable body of previous research, suffers from serious technical and analytic flaws. As a result, the main message being communicated is deeply misleading.
Feeding the flames of the “Mommy Wars”
The Milkie et al. paper sets up a media-friendly straw man, namely that mothers — implicitly highly-educated mothers — are trapped in a pattern of “intensive parenting” that diminishes their own health and well-being and provides no benefit to their children. This feeds into a popular frame about the stresses for mothers of balancing work and family.
But there is no evidence of a “mental health tax” on mothers resulting from time spent with their children. In fact, our work (and that of the Pew Research Center) shows that the principal source of happiness for mothers, whether they work outside the home or not, is spending time with their children. It would be possible to use the PSID dataset to investigate any link between maternal investments of time and psychological distress, but the authors do not. They show that mothers’ stress and/or depression is related to poor child outcomes, but offer no evidence that this psychological distress is related to the amount of time the parent spends with their child.
“Intensive parenting” and “quality time”: phrases in search of definition
The paper highlights the risk of “intensive parenting,” without defining or measuring it. The mothers in the sample studied spend on average about two hours per day engaged with their children aged between 3 and 11, and about one hour per day engaged with their teens. Is a couple hours a day really “intensive parenting”? No doubt, there is a point of diminishing returns on parental time investment. But a more sophisticated analysis would be needed to establish it, and to measure how many mothers exceed it.
The authors’ main conclusion is that “not quantity of time, but rather its quality” is what matters. But the paper does not in fact test this hypothesis. Quality of time is not measured. Nor is the time that could be seen as “high-quality” (e.g., reading to young children) differentiated or quantified.
In fact, decades of developmental theory and empirical research suggest that specific kinds of parent-child engagement are strongly correlated with certain outcomes: for example, reading and talking to support cognitive development; helping with homework to support academic achievement; playing to promote behavioral adjustment.
Go read the whole thing. Then check out Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids to learn how you can get the most out of all the time you spend with your kids.