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.

“Can These Parents Be Saved?” asks TIME Magazine Cover Story

Hi Readers — Wow. This is my dream article, and (perhaps) not just because it is high on Free-Range Kids! Check it out! Yay, Time! And please allow me to quote a part I find particularly salient:

Obsessing about kids’ safety and success became the norm, a kind of orthodoxy took hold, and heaven help the heretics — the ones who were brave enough to let their kids venture outside without Secret Service protection. Just ask Lenore Skenazy, who to this day, when you Google “America’s Worst Mom,” fills the first few pages of results — all because one day last year she let her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone. A newspaper column she wrote about it somehow ignited a global firestorm over what constitutes reasonable risk. She had reporters calling from China, Israel, Australia, Malta. (“Malta! An island!” she marvels. “Who’s stalking the kids there? Pirates?”) Skenazy decided to fight back, arguing that we have lost our ability to assess risk. By worrying about the wrong things, we do actual damage to our children, raising them to be anxious and unadventurous or, as she puts it, “hothouse, mama-tied, danger-hallucinating joy extinguishers.”

Skenazy, a Yale-educated mom who with her husband is raising two boys in New York City, had ingested all the same messages as the rest of us. Her sons’ school once held a pre-field-trip assembly explaining exactly how close to a hospital the children would be at all times. She confesses to being “at least part Sikorsky,” hiring a football coach for a son’s birthday and handing out mouth guards as party favors. But when the Today show had her on the air to discuss her subway decision, interviewer Ann Curry turned to the camera and asked, “Is she an enlightened mom or a really bad one?”

From that day and the food fight that followed, she launched her Free Range Kids blog, which eventually turned into her own Dangerous Book for Parents: Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry. There is no rational reason, she argues, that a generation of parents who grew up walking alone to school, riding mass transit, trick-or-treating, teeter-tottering and selling Girl Scout cookies door to door should be forbidding their kids to do the same. But somehow, she says, “10 is the new 2. We’re infantilizing our kids into incompetence.” She celebrates seat belts and car seats and bike helmets and all the rational advances in child safety. It’s the irrational responses that make her crazy, like when Dear Abby endorses the idea, as she did in August, that each morning before their kids leave the house, parents take a picture of them. That way, if they are kidnapped, the police will have a fresh photo showing what clothes they were wearing. Once the kids make it home safe and sound, you can delete the picture and take a new one the next morning.

That advice may seem perfectly sensible to parents bombarded by heartbreaking news stories about missing little girls and the predator next door. But too many parents, says Skenazy, have the math all wrong. Refusing to vaccinate your children, as millions now threaten to do in the case of the swine flu, is statistically reckless; on the other hand, there are no reports of a child ever being poisoned by a stranger handing out tainted Halloween candy, and the odds of being kidnapped and killed by a stranger are about 1 in 1.5 million. When parents confront you with “How can you let him go to the store alone?,” she suggests countering with “How can you let him visit your relatives?” (Some 80% of kids who are molested are victims of friends or relatives.) Or ride in the car with you? (More than 430,000 kids were injured in motor vehicles last year.) “I’m not saying that there is no danger in the world or that we shouldn’t be prepared,” she says. “But there is good and bad luck and fate and things beyond our ability to change. The way kids learn to be resourceful is by having to use their resources.” Besides, she says with a smile, “a 100%-safe world is not only impossible. It’s nowhere you’d want to be.”

Let’s say it again: Hooray for Time Magazine! The tide is turning! — Lenore