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Does parent time matter for kids? Your questions answered


Readers had strong reactions to a provocative, new and groundbreaking study that found that the quantity of time parents spend with their kids has virtually no relationship to out they turn out. Not in math and reading scores. Not in emotional well-being, nor in behavior. The one link they found was that time with more engaged parents was more likely to keep teens out of trouble.

Some readers felt relief. Others felt disbelief, or even anger.

Here are some of the questions readers sent in. And here’s what the study authors had to say. Answering are Melissa Milkie, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, Kei Nomaguchi, at Bowling Green State University and Kathleen Denny, another sociologist at the University of Maryland:

Q: You found the quantity of parent time wasn’t linked to positive child outcomes. But other studies have found that quality time is. Some readers challenged your finding, saying it takes a measure of quantity of time to actually be there for those moments of connection in quality time.

A: This distinction between quantity and quality of time is interesting, but this is more of a culturally-constructed distinction than something borne out of our study. We found that sheer quantity of time is unrelated to children’s outcomes (both current well-being and well-being measured five years later). Other research (not ours) finds the importance for certain types of time and how spending time in eating meals or reading together, is beneficial for children. We understand the logic that spending time even in quality activities – entails spending time, that is putting in a quantity of time. So it’s possible (and perhaps likely) that if we divided time into type of activity, we might find that children who spent more time with mom doing certain things would have better outcomes. Our intent, though, was to address the widely held belief that larger amounts of time with mom, and mom exclusively, is necessarily better, regardless of activity. We did not find support for this claim.

Q: One reader tweeted: “Study attempts to excuse absentee parenting.” Does the study give carte blanche to uninvolved or workaholic parents?

Do parents spend enough time with their kids? That was the question The Post's Brigid Schulte posed in her story about a groundbreaking new study, which found it’s how you spend your time, not how much, that has the biggest impact on kids. (Video: The Washington Post)

A: Our study was designed to address a fundamental cultural assumption that more time with mothers is necessarily better for children. Had this cultural assumption played out in the data, we would have seen the kids who spent the most time with their mothers also have the best behavioral, emotional, and academic outcomes. We didn’t find that. But it’s also important to emphasize we studied children (all of whom lived with their mothers) at one point in time during one week (a weekday and a weekend day were examined). At that one point in time, the children who had spent one hour of time with their mother that week looked the same in terms of their emotional, academic, and behavioral well-being as kids who spent 15+ hours with their mothers. We did not study how prolonged periods of time use, including chronic lack of mother-child time together, is associated with children’s well-being.

We’d like to underscore that mothers, fathers, and parents are important for children, and supporting parents so they can support children is critical. Overly demanding workplaces, financial strain, and the lack of availability of quality child care are important sources of stress and it would be better for all parents (and thus children) if workplaces were more accommodating, if all families had access to the resources they needed to thrive, and if high quality child care was available for all families for those times when parents are working.

Q: Some readers wrote “No more working mother guilt!” Others couldn’t believe that more time with mothers didn’t matter for kids. What are the study’s key findings about working mothers?

A: We argue that one of the main cultural beliefs tied to what sociologists call “intensive mothering” ideology is that more time with mother is necessarily better. This plays a key role in the “mommy wars” debate about whether mothers should stay at home with children or be employed outside the home in the workforce. We do not find that children who spend more time with their mothers look significantly different from children who spent less time with their mothers.

Q: Others wanted to know, What about fathers?

A: We focused on mothers because that’s whom the dominant cultural narrative is focused on. The idea of “intensive mothering” is prevalent in American culture, and that was the idea we were trying to test empirically. We agree with the tweeters, though, that examining father time is important. We tested the importance of father time in the same way we tested the importance of mother time; that is, we examined the relationship between time spent with father but not mother (i.e., exclusive father time), and children’s outcomes. Especially in childhood, we found that father time looked much like mother time – it had no statistical relationship with children’s outcomes. This is not to say that fathers (or mothers) are unimportant; it does, however, suggest that sheer quantity of time is not as consequential for children’s well-being as other factors (like parents’ education and income). In any case, there are lots of reasons to spend time with kids regardless of how much it ultimately matters for the outcomes we studied. Spending time with children is often rewarding and fulfilling and all parents should have the opportunity to take advantage of that.

Q: Some readers were concerned that you didn’t address infants and very young children. What can you say, or what do we know about the importance of quality AND quantity of time in these early years?

A: This is an excellent point. It is important to emphasize that our study looks at children between the ages of 3 and 11 and between the ages of 12 and 17. There was not diary data available for the very young so we could not examine this issue. We did not include infants and toddlers in our study because that is an especially unique life stage that we cannot be grouped in with more self-sufficient stages of childhood. We do cite a 2005 paper by Huston and Aaronson that shows infant development is related more strongly to mothers’ social status than time investments.

Still, other work shows that children do better when they spend more time in maternal care than non-maternal care in the very early months. There are mixed findings in this literature, and our study cannot adjudicate among them because we don’t address very young children.

Q: One reader wrote about how technology is turning engaged time into “distracted” time.What do we know about how screen time, for both parents and kids, impacts quality and engaged time?

[Read: My iPhone addiction was making me a terrible mother]

A: We did not address any one type of time, but sheer quantity of time. It is important to keep in mind the historical moment of our study – the data come from a pre-iPhone era. Even in our study, though, it is entirely possible that much of the time we examined – even the engaged time – could have been “screen time” – that is, time when mother (or father, or parents) were together, but watching TV. We know that screen time is not as good for children’s outcomes as other types of activities, like reading, talking, or participating in physical activities. So it’s possible that if we just looked at those children whose engaged time with their parents was in the context of TV watching, we might observe that they had different outcomes than children whose engaged time with their parents was never in the context of TV watching.

We did not make these types of distinctions in our study, but they are important for future research. It’s also really difficult to study “distracted time” in time diary research. In short, it would be hard to measure but certainly an important and timely question.

Read Schulte’s original piece here.

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