Is it the time spent with children, or what we do with the time that really counts?

April 1, 2015 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

A brand new study from the Journal of Marriage and Family seems to challenge some long-held views about the amount of time mothers spend with their children. The study says the number of hours a mother spends with her children is not as important as the mother-child engagement during that time.

Research involving 1,600 children (ages 3-11) and 778 adolescents (ages 12-17) measured parent-child time in two ways; accessible time (time when the parent was physically available to their child) and engaged time (time when the parent and child are doing something together). The aim was to determine the effects of each category of time on the subjects’ emotional, behavioral and academic growth, and ultimately on the likelihood of risky behavior in adolescence.

The results offer some relief from guilt for working women who may feel as if they are undermining their children’s development because they are not stay-at-home moms. According to the study, the amount of time mothers are available to their preteen kids (ages 3-11) has little to do with how well they turn out later in life.

What is more important is the way time is spent when mother and child are together. The study points out that actually doing things together contributes to a child’s successful development.

Dr. Harley A. Rotbart, in her book No Regrets Parenting: Turning Long Days and Short Years into Cherished Moments with Your Kids, said “Your children need to spend meaningful time with you. They need to see who you are and how you live your life.”

The new study’s authors, researchers Melissa Milkie at University of Toronto, Kei Nomaguchi at Bowling Green, and Kathleen Denny at University of Maryland, said that mothers today actually spend more time engaged with their kids than mothers 40 years ago, even though many more of them are now in the workforce.

However, they cautioned that the study measured engaged time, not necessarily “quality” time. The research did not look at the amount of time in “particular quality activities with children, such as reading or eating meals together versus watching TV or cleaning with them” and did not assess the “quality or tone of mothers’ interaction with children, such as warmth, sensitivity, or focus.”

“These may be more important than the sheer amount of time mothers spend with children,” the authors wrote.

In addition, the study did not measure how mothers use their friends and social networks to organize activities for their children. It recognized that these activities could be very important to a child’s development without involving direct parental interaction.

The authors acknowledged other factors that also influenced the results. In fact, a mother’s education, family income and family structure all showed up as significant influences in the outcomes for children. Although the study focused primarily on mothers, the research also showed that mother and father involvement in children’s lives was an even stronger predictor of future success.

The authors said their study “questions conventional wisdom about what is important for children’s well-being, with our findings underscoring the critical importance of economic and social resources and thus the urgency in supporting mothers and families in these ways.”

In the meantime, make the time spent with your children meaningful time.


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