Parents Spend More Time With Their Kids Today: The Good News and Bad News

Studies show that parents, both mothers and fathers, are spending more time with their children than they did back in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, when we parents were children. They also show a big shift in how parents spend time with children. (A comprehensive review of all this research can be found in “The Rug Rat Race” by Gary Ramey and Valerie Ramey.)

There’s good news and bad news in these numbers. The good news is the fundamental fact that more hours with children means that parents are investing more time in their children. This is quite impressive given that fact that all parents, mothers in particular, are spending more hours per week working than they did years ago. These increased hours with children and at work are accounted for mostly by decreases in time spent doing household chores and free time.

In general, children who spend more time with their parents are happier and healthier, and do better in school. Later in life, they attain a higher educational level and earn more money later as adults.

It’s hard to argue against parents spending more time with their children.

The bad news is in the details of where parents are allocating their time with their children. The data show that parents are spending a lot more time “traveling” with kids or chauffering them, and with them at their activities. They are also spending more “educational” time with their kids, which is probably the time they spend helping their children with homework.

In addition, the increase in hours devoted to children is much more pronounced for older children than for younger children. “The Rug Rat Race” seizes on this fact to conclude that the increase in childcare time is due to parents’ efforts to get their children into better colleges. The authors’ arguments are quite persuasive.

This allocation of time by parents indicates that their highest priority is maximizing some notion of their children’s future lives. They are “hovering” over their children like never before to assure that they have the best possible credentials for college. Meanwhile, children’s present lives are suffering. Youth depression has dramatically increased in recent years to about 3 to 5 percent of preteens and up to 15 percent of teenagers. (See “Depression – For Patients and Families – Children’s Hospital Boston“, by William Beardslee, MD.)

Also, while there is no direct data to support this, I would argue that this hovering, future-focused brand of parenting has resulted in children who are less independent, and think less independently. As a result, they are less competent in fending for themselves in the world. Building such competence can help children enjoy their lives today, but it’s important for their futures as well. Unfortunately, the benefits of independence and independent thinking – creativity, problem solving skills, and street smarts – are a lot harder to measure than the benefits of “book smarts.”

So, how would I recommend parents allocate their time and attention? I would certainly not advocate that parents go back to the way parents used to be and spend less time with their children. Certainly, that would probably lead to more independence in their children, but I believe there is a third path that leads to the most learning and personal growth.

I’ll call it “facilitated independence.” I wrote about this approach in a previous article, and I’ll quote from there liberally. My basic idea is to try to be a facilitator for our children to help them find their own identities and achieve their highest potential while teaching some absolute guidelines for safety and morality. 

As facilitators, I want to bring our children into challenging situations, model behavior for them, and then provide them with the opportunity to start doing parts of these things on their own.  It’s important that I do this in our own neighborhood, so we can monitor and guide the process as we feel we need to without hovering.

I’ll give you an example.  At least once a week, my son Marco (5) and I ride our bikes to his school, and when the weather’s warm, we ride practically every day in our neighborhood.  He’s gotten very agile on a bike, and his judgment has improved tremendously. 

He and I regularly cross El Camino Real (a large six-lane road) together, and my wife and I now let him ride the sidewalks and street in front of our house without our watching.  We still check in frequently, but due to lots of maturing through experience, he’s proven to us that he can handle it.

So, I’m working hard for my kids, but I’m not doing the things that “model parents” around us are doing – choosing friends, setting up playdates, coaching their sports teams, working at their schools, or driving them to lots of structured activities. Instead, I’m trying to build a strong foundation in our neighborhood for my kids to develop their confidence and their own identities. Of course, since it’s right outside our front door, I can get involved anytime I feel I need to.

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