Are You Spending Enough Time With Your Kids? (Funny I Should Ask)

Hi Readers! Here’s a guest post from Laura Vanderkam, a journalist who blogs at my168hours.com, writes for The Wall Street Journal (among other fancy places), and just came out with the intriguing book: “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.” Here she ponders:

Are Parents Spending Enough Time with Their Kids These Days?

by Laura Vanderkam

This loaded question usually starts a discussion of some perceived social ill: killer hours, working moms, maybe the frenetic pace of modern life. Certainly, many people worry that society is coming up short on this front. As Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute recently told The New York Times, “I’ve never found a group of parents who believe they are spending enough time with their kids.”

Of course, to ask whether parents spend enough time with their kids implies that there is a correct number of hours one should devote to this job. And since we usually throw in “these days,” it implies comparisons to some other time when, perhaps, parents approached the optimal amount.

Going down this line of reasoning, however, we make some interesting discoveries.

First, when do people think this golden era occurred? Maybe you’re picturing a 1950s/early 1960s Ozzie and Harriet-style home, a simpler time of one-income families when work didn’t follow us out of the office.

But social scientists have been tracking how Americans spend their time for decades, and it turns out that parents are spending a lot more time interacting with their kids now than they did in, say, 1965. In 1965, according to data from the 1965-66 Americans’ Use of Time Study, mothers spent 10 hours weekly on childcare as a primary activity. Fathers spent 3 hours.

Meantime, according to a recent analysis by economists Garey and Valerie Ramey: College-educated moms now spend 21.2 hours on such things (15.9 for women with less education). Betsey Stevenson and Dan Sacks at the University of Pennsylvania calculated that college-educated dads are now up to 9.6 hours per week.

This is interesting, because far more women work outside the home now than did in 1965. And yet weeks still contain the exact same 168 hours that they always have. So what happened?

Two things. First, women used to spend a lot more time doing housework. In 1965, married moms did 34.5 hours a week. All that cooking and cleaning didn’t have a lot of surplus time for interacting with children. While they were busy ironing blankets and dusting ceilings and who knows what else, many moms sent kids out to wander their neighborhoods all day. There are upsides and downsides to this, and Lenore’s blog here focuses on the upsides, but the point is, mid-century women often perceived their job as house care – not childcare.

Which brings us to the second point: The culture of parenthood has changed. Not long ago, my parents gave me some books they’d saved from my childhood. I marveled that I hadn’t destroyed them, because until my son turned two, his books didn’t last 30 days, let alone 30 years.

My parents’ secret?

They didn’t read to me until I was old enough not to destroy books! Now, of course, not reading to your baby is considered practically child abuse.

Between the decline of housework and the rise of intense parenting, the interactive hours have crept up, pretty much across the board. Even if you’re working full-time, you’re probably spending more time interacting with your kids than your grandmother did.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s enough time. Many of us could turn off the TV and do more. But if we fret that modern parents aren’t spending enough time with their kids, it’s important to note that our forbears were, by this standard, hideous. And most of us don’t think they were. So maybe we’re doing okay too. – L.V.