Does Time Parents Spend with Kids Really Matter?

Moms and dads spend more time with their children and adolescents than they ever have in the past, but is more time spent with children paying off in terms of better outcomes for children?

According to a study published in the April Journal of Marriage and Family, not really.

Wait a minute! You mean I’ve been feeling guilty all these years for no reason? I always thought my kids turned out pretty great in spite of the fact that I worked during their elementary and adolescent years, not because of it. (Well, maybe less exposure to me can be a good thing.)

Before we go too far, the study did NOT include infants. Research shows that forming a strong bond with a mother or consistent caregiver is critically important in the early years.

However, the study shows no relationship between the amount of time parents spend with their children (in the study, older than age 3) and adolescents and their emotional health, behavior and even academic achievement.

Apparently, one thing that does adversely affect kids is a stressed-out parent, especially a mom. Kei Nomoguchi, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University and co-author of the study was quoted in an article in the Washington Post.  She said: “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.”

So if time doesn’t matter, what can we do, if anything, to raise emotionally healthy, smart kids? It’s quality over quantity.

The researchers aren’t saying that we should just ignore our children, but we can back off a bit and focus on the things that are really important. While most of us can’t be with our children every minute, what we can do is engage more. We can become better listeners. We can spend time having conversations with our children and reading with our children every day. There is research that shows that families who eat dinner together have children who are less likely to engage in risky behavior and who do better in school. It’s not the act of eating, but the act of community — feeling a part of a “tribe,” a family — that gives children confidence. When you eat together, or go hiking together or take bike rides or walks with your children, or volunteer with them, or go to parks or museums together, you have opportunities to talk, to listen, to learn and have fun as a family.

Quality time doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s simply spending time together as a family. The research shows that children who have sensitive, engaged parents have better outcomes.

I don’t think this is a surprise to most parents. All of us want to be accepted for who we are. We all want to be listened to and made to feel that we matter. That’s the most important job a parent can do.

I’m relieved that we don’t need to feel guilty about working, but at the same time, I feel that when I wasn’t working full time, I could allow a more natural flow of time so that when a conversation, an activity or an opportunity popped up with my kids, I could take advantage of it. Maybe it’s more about the attitude and values of love, acceptance and warmth in parenting the matter the most rather than the time issue.

What do you think? Does the amount of time you spend with your kids matter?

Categories: Editor’s Blog