If results of a study of the amount of time mothers and fathers spend engaged in activities with their children are true, then it may well be time for parents to put aside their guilt and pay less attention to their children. Research shows that the time mothers spend improving their family's income could do more for their children's psychological and academic outcomes than being there constantly at home. In fact, excessive amounts of time caring for children, especially during their elementary school years, could do children more harm than good. Finally, we have more proof that helicopter parenting harms kids. And we have an excuse to look after our own needs as parents just a little bit more.
Of course, I enjoyed playing blocks with my toddler and even liked those boring soccer practices now and again. But I have to say that sometimes I did those things more out of guilt than any desire to spend time with my children. I always wondered, how much time was enough?
It turns out many of us may be over-functioning as parents. A recent analysis of time diaries produced by respondents to a University of Michigan national longitudinal survey of families found some unexpected news when it comes to the amount of time parents spend with their children and the impact it has on them.
First, the authors of the study, Melissa Milke and her colleagues, found that parents these days are spending more time than ever before with their children. How are they doing this? They are adapting the time they spend at work and doing chores so that their schedules are more open when children are in the home. For 3-to-11-year-olds, that means mothers are spending an average of 11 to 30 hours each week either fully engaged in activities with their kids, or nearby and accessible when needed. For children in their early teens, moms are still managing to be there between 11 and 20 hours each week. Fathers too, are spending more time than ever before with their children. Not nearly as much as moms, but still a good deal more than their fathers spent with them. That’s all potentially good news. Or it would be if it was actually helping our children improve their grades or be more emotionally competent and secure. That’s where the story gets complicated.
It seems that the amount of time mothers or fathers spend with their children before they become teens has no significant impact on children’s social, academic or emotional performance. During the teen years,however, more time spent by a mother, or a mother and father together, can decrease the risk that an adolescent becomes delinquent, sexually active, or uses drugs. It seems there is something about a parent being around that helps children at that age self-regulate. I’m not surprised. A child who knows they are being monitored by those around them tends to keep her behaviour a little more in check.
So what does make a difference in a younger child’s life if not a parent’s attention? It turns out that family income was a much bigger predictor of successful child development than the amount of time a parent spends with her child. That result holds at every socioeconomic level. The study's authors didn't say rich people have healthier kids. What they did was show that in each income bracket, higher household income is related to better child development.
The take away lesson? When children are in elementary school, mothers might do better to pursue paid employment and increase their family income rather than trying to be there to attend to their child’s every need.
That is certainly controversial given our culture of over-protective, bubblewrapping parenting. But it also makes some sense. We know there is a fine line between responsible parenting and the kind of obsessively controlling behaviour by caregivers that makes children emotionally dependent on adults. In a context where the child is reasonably safe, that kind of excessive attention may be disadvantaging a child’s capacity to cope. Rather than developing the necessary life skills for a lifetime of resilience, the child is constantly “done for” rather than being asked to “do for himself”.
I have no regrets about having made lots of time for my own children while they were growing up, but I’m also pleased to hear that the time I spent outside the home in paid labor may not have been all that bad for my kids afterall. Maybe it’s all about finding the right balance. Our kids need us, but they also need time to figure out how to do things on their own.