As a working mother, I often feel guilt about the amount of time I spend—or don’t spend—with my children. Partly it’s because my own mom was a stay-at-home mom who taught me that working mothers have effectively abandoned their children. Thanks mom! Partly it’s because mothering has become ratcheted up to the nth degree these days. You’re enrolled in mommy-and-me yoga classes and feed your children organic locally grown carrots and peas, right? Sigh.
A recent study suggests that this guilt may be misplaced.
Do parents, especially mothers, spend enough time with their children?
Though American parents are with their children more than most any parents in the world, many feel guilty because they don’t believe it’s enough. That’s because there’s a widespread cultural assumption that the time parents, particularly mothers, spend with children is key to ensuring a bright future.
Now groundbreaking new research upends that conventional wisdom and finds that that isn’t the case. At all.
In fact, it appears the sheer amount of time parents spend with their kids between the ages of 3 and 11 has virtually no relationship to how children turn out, and a minimal effect on adolescents, according to the first large-scale longitudinal study of parent time to be published in April in the Journal of Marriage and Family. The finding includes children’s academic achievement, behavior and emotional well-being.
“I could literally show you 20 charts, and 19 of them would show no relationship between the amount of parents’ time and children’s outcomes. . . . Nada. Zippo,” said Melissa Milkie, a sociologist at the University of Toronto and one of the report’s authors.
Yes, you read that right.
That’s not to say that parent time isn’t important. Plenty of studies have shown links between quality parent time — such as reading to a child, sharing meals, talking with them or otherwise engaging with them one-on-one — and positive outcomes for kids. The same is true for parents’ warmth and sensitivity toward their children. It’s just that the quantity of time doesn’t appear to matter.
As my regular readers know, I was homeschooled by a mother who frequently likened putting a child in daycare to child abandonment. I remember hearing the distinction between “quality time” and “quantity time” discussed in a dismissive way—can you believe those suckers who think they can make up for sending their child to daycare/school by spending “quality” time with them?
I was worried—very worried—when I first put my oldest in daycare, because everything I had heard growing up suggested that spending the working hours away from my children would have severe detrimental consequences. And yet even though I’ve had my children in daycare from 8am to 5pm since they were small, I’ve never seen any problem with either having a solid relationship with each of them or with their own sense of security or self esteem.
As a parent, I’ve come to recognize a very real and meaningful difference between quantity time and quality time. I know that sitting in the room with my child and saying “uh huh honey” while browsing facebook on my iPhone is not the same as reading a book to them, or building a train track that covers the living room floor, or making muffins together. I suspect that the reason my children have thrived in spite of spending the working hours away from me is that I make a conscious effort to spend quality time with each of them.
I suppose what I’m saying is I don’t find this study surprising.
I suspect that what really matters, beyond quality time with parents, is that the child is safe, secure, and being well cared for. I carefully chose a daycare where I knew my children could feel comfortable. They’ve developed strong bonds with each of their caregivers, and our daycare has low turnover, so these bonds often last years. I’ve done what I can to ensure that Sally is comfortable in school as well—she’s in kindergarten this year—and have been pleased to see her form a strong bond with her teacher.Here’s more on the study’s findings:
In truth, Milkie’s study and others have found that, more than any quantity or quality time, income and a mother’s educational level are most strongly associated with a child’s future success.
“If we’re really wanting to think about the bigger picture and ask, how would we support kids, our study suggests through social resources that help the parents in terms of supporting their mental health and socio-economic status,” she said. “The sheer amount of time that we’ve been so focused on them doesn’t do much.”
As I’ve noted here before, we live at a time when parenting—especially mothering—has been rachetted up to the nth degree. There is a lot of worry and fear in modern parenting. Intensive parenting is back, and the pressure to meet its demands is reaches from the rich to the poor. And yet, this study suggests that if we want to help children, especially children from less privileged backgrounds, a focus on raising income and improving maternal education will be far more successful than guilting parents for the time they spend away from their children. It also suggests that our children’s outcomes may be most strongly influenced by factors ultimately outside of our control.
There’s also this:
Amy Hsin, a sociologist at Queens College, has found that parents who spend the bulk of their time with children under 6 watching TV or doing nothing can actually have a “detrimental” effect on them. And the American Academy of Pediatrics emphasizes that children also need unstructured time to themselves without the engagement of parents for social and cognitive development.
In fact, the study found one key instance when parent time can be particularly harmful to children. That’s when parents, mothers in particular, are stressed, sleep-deprived, guilty and anxious.
“Mothers’ stress, especially when mothers are stressed because of the juggling with work and trying to find time with kids, that may actually be affecting their kids poorly,” said co-author Kei Nomaguchi, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University.
In other words, spending quantity time with your child without engaging them may be doing them harm rather than good, and stressing out about not spending enough quantity time with your children may actually be counterproductive. I suppose the overall takeaway is this: Take a deep breath and relax, make sure to spend at least some time engaging with your child, and don’t be afraid to let your child out of your sight.
In this one blog post, I’ve mentioned both (1) that I often feel guilt about the amount of time I spend (or don’t spend) with my children and (2) that I feel confident that the time my children spend in daycare (and now school) hasn’t done them—or us—any harm. These two would seem to be contradictory. If I am happy with my children’s sense of security and self esteem and with the quality of my relationship with them, why would I still feel guilt about being away from them during the working day? Let’s just say that emotions are not always rational!
I will say, though, that I have found this study relieving and confirming. I’m glad to see outside confirmation that what I thought was working is a thing that works. And with that, I’ll get back to some other research and look forward to a book and a romp with my kids when I pick them up at 5:00. 🙂