Guest Post: You Can’t Helicopter-Parent Three Kids

 Hi Folks! This guest post is by Laura Vanderkam, author of All the Money in the World:What the Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending, out today from Portfolio!

You Can’t Helicopter-Parent Three Kids by Laura Vanderkam

Having a baby changes everything. Having three in four and a half years? While that was common in the 1950s, when the average American woman had nearly four children, it’s a lot less common now. But hey, I like to be an overachiever. At least on the fertility front. Because, as I learned this fall after bringing my baby daughter home from the hospital, when it comes to raising kids, having three little ones will throw any perfectionist tendencies under the bus.

When I only had my oldest son, I fretted about using television as a babysitter. Now that I have three kids, I literally use it as a babysitter, parking my oldest two in front of a video while putting the baby to bed on nights I have all three on my own.  The kids are no longer at risk of being overscheduled. I decided not to sign my oldest up for indoor soccer this winter because I couldn’t bear to deal with the logistics of getting him to practice 20 minutes away on Wednesday afternoons. If he was an only child, I might worry about him being behind on his skills. As a mother of three, I’ve realized that starting one’s soccer career at age 4 has absolutely nothing to do with how you’ll turn out in life.

Trying to keep track of everyone in the house, I’ve started to see that one reason 1950s moms let their kids wander around all afternoon is that it was too hard to keep tabs on that many kids all the time. Smaller families make it possible to plan and monitor a child’s every move, and that possibility makes people think they should. If everyone had four small kids, leaving the three younger ones in the care of an 11-year-old while you ran a quick errand to the post office wouldn’t seem so nutty. Whatever can go wrong is probably not nearly as bad as what can go wrong with four small kids tromping across a parking lot.

And what can go right? Well, here’s the thing. When you have lots of little ones, more hands helps. So teaching an 11-year-old responsibility in small chunks sounds pretty smart. It’s a skill many 11-year-olds these days — who are left with sitters themselves — don’t pick up. As for the little ones, with less parental monitoring, you learn to be flexible. Yes, someone just put you in your brother’s pants. No, you might not get your favorite TV show or story tonight. But being resilient and having an internal locus of control — the belief that you are responsible for making your way in the world — is not a bad lesson to take away from childhood. It’s certainly better than thinking your mother should show up with you for a job interview. I can barely remember my own professional appointments these days, let alone someone else’s.

In short, you can’t helicopter parent three kids. True, I probably won’t let the kids wander around 1950s style. I’m actually not so sure about letting an 11-year-old babysit (even if I did at that age). But with three, I can see this: you just can’t follow each one around on the playground. So it goes — you can’t follow them around through life either. And it’s good to learn you can make the swings move on your own.

It's just horse-sense: Three kids = kids on their own!

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, 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.