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
Do parents, especially mothers, spend enough time with their children?
Though American parents are with their children more than 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.
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.
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.
“In an ideal world, this study would alleviate parents’ guilt about the amount of time they spend,” Milkie said, “and show instead what’s really important for kids.”
But if Milkie’s study makes clear that quality, not quantity, counts, then how much quality time is enough? Milkie’s study doesn’t say.
“I’m not aware of any rich and telling literature on whether there’s a ‘sweet spot’ of the right amount of time to spend with kids,” said Matthew Biel, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Georgetown University Medical Center.
Research does show that in highly stressed urban environments, having involved parents and even strict parents is associated with less delinquent behavior, Biel said.