Does this schedule look familiar?
- Wake up.
- Get the kids fed and ready for school.
- Take the kids to school/preschool/daycare.
- Go to work.
- Pick up the kids from school.
- Take each kid of their extracurricular activities.
- Pick up dinner, dry cleaning, and that other random thing you’ve been meaning to grab for weeks but keep forgetting (or just straight-up procrastinating).
- Answer texts and emails during every still moment.
- Get home.
- Prepare dinner and meals for the next day. Eat standing at the counter with your phone in your hand answering more emails.
- Mow the lawn that’s suddenly become a jungle overnight.
- Spend quality time with your kids.
- Experience overwhelming guilt when you feel exhausted by the thought of trying to fit something meaningful to do with your kids into your schedule
- Declare yourself the worst parent in the world.
If this sounds like your every day, you’re not alone. Standards for what it means to be a good parent, especially for mothers, have reached nearly-unattainable levels in recent decades.
“There are a lot of cultural pressures for intensive parenting — the competition for jobs, what we think makes for a successful child, teenager and young adult, and what we think in a competitive society with few social supports is going to help them succeed,” said Melissa Milkie, a sociologist at the University of Toronto. That leads to mothers cutting back on sleep and time to themselves to spend what they are told to be the “correct” amount of time with their kids.
But listen to this: According to a large-scale study that Milkie and her colleagues conducted of parents raising kids ages 3 to 11, the amount of time parents spend with their kids makes virtually zero difference in how they turn out as adults. The quality of the time seems to make all the difference.
Before anyone thinks this is some kind of endorsement for absentee parenting, parents obviously need to be present in their kids’ lives. Collett Smart, a registered psychologist and educator, says, “Countless studies indicate one of the key factors that builds resilience in young people is a sense of being connected to adults.” Connection can’t happen if you aren’t around. Reading together, sharing meals, one-on-one conversations, and being warm and sensitive all have positive outcomes for kids.
However, it’s also clear that it isn’t the number of hours you clock as a parent that matters — how you choose to spend that time is what makes the difference.
But … How Much Time?
It’s understandable if you’re shaking your head and thinking, “No, there’s got to be a number of hours I need to spend with my kids each week. Give me that number.”
During her research on this very topic, Washington Post writer Brigid Schulte asked Matthew Biel, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Georgetown University Medical Center, about the amount of time parents should spend with their kids. His response? “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.” Hitting a particular number of “required hours” can actually be detrimental to children. Researchers have found that parents who spend the bulk of their time with children watching TV or doing nothing can have a detrimental effect.
If it’s any consolation, looking at historical data on parenting should make you feel better. According to Schulte’s research, the amount of time mothers spend with their kids today is actually higher than it was back in 1965. (Keep in mind that the number of working mothers rose from 41 percent in 1965 to 71 percent in 2014!) Dads are also spending more time with their kids, nearly tripling from 2.6 hours a week in 1965 to 7.2 in 2010.
So if part of the guilt you feel is spurred on by the thought, “I wish I could spend as much time with my kids as my parents spent with me,” congratulations! You’re doing it!
Speaking of that guilt …
Stress Kills Quality
Researchers are finding that, when parents are stressed and sleep-deprived, the quality of the time they spend with their kids is low. Kei Nomaguchi, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University, said, “Mothers’ stress, especially when mothers are stressed because of the juggling with work and trying to find time with kids … may actually be affecting their kids poorly.” Nomaguchi found that stressed-out parents can lead to behavioral and emotional problems (and even low math scores) in their kids.
The best things parents can do to ensure high-quality time with their kids is … stop stressing about the time they are spending with their kids! Be present, free from distractions, and at peace.
Types of Quality Time
If you’re fresh out of ideas when it comes to spending quality time with your kids, here are some great suggestions to consider:
- Tips for Spending Quality Time with Your Child – National Association for the Education of Young Children
- Importance of Family Time on Kids Mental Health and Adjustment to Life – Child Development Institute
- Quality Time: Happier Families, Healthier Lives – BeWell, by Stanford University
- Why Spend One-on-One Time with Your Child – First Five Years
And don’t forget — sometimes the best thing you can do as a parent is to leave your child alone. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that children need unstructured time to themselves for social and cognitive development.
Be Kind to Yourself, Parents
At the end of the day, acknowledge that you are doing your very best as a parent. Vague societal standards shouldn’t be the measuring sticks we use to define parental success. Whether that’s a 30-minute check-in at the end of each day or an hours-long activity once a week, look at what your children need and do your best to make sure everyone feels valued and loved.
It can be difficult to stay engaged with your loved ones, especially when there are so many distractions demanding our attention. Fortunately, if we turn off our phones, switch off our TVs, and give our families our undivided attention, we can rest assured that the few minutes of quality time we’re spending with them is making a big difference in their lives.