The science of parenting: How much time should I spend with my kids?

This is the first part of a series in which I explore whether or not how we FEEL about parenting issues reflects the actual FACTS. 

At least once a week, I have the same conversation. I’ve had this conversation with working moms and stay-at-home moms. It is usually during a meeting or other week night obligation and it always begins with a mommy friend expressing guilt about being away from her kids.

Despite encouragement and reassurance that her kids are fine, I always get the same response, “I just feel like I should BE there.”

Now, let's examine the facts. American mothers spend more time with their children than in any other time in history. If you were born in the 1970s and you currently work full time, there is a strong chance that you spend more time with your children while working full time, then your mom did even if she stayed home

Y’all, that is bananas.

We have invented a lot of time-saving technology in the past thirty years but we didn't add more hours to our day! That means we are sacrificing sleep, self-care, and practically ALL of our free time to spend more time with our kids. 

And on top of it all, we still feel guilty!

Well, do we feel guilty for a reason? Were our mothers and their mothers before them absentee parents who harmed their kids? Despite all this additional time, is there a chance our children still need more? 

Turns out. NO.

This week the Journal of Marriage and Family published the first large-scale longitudinal study of parent time which found NO (zero, zilch, nada) positive effects from spending large amounts of time with your children. The study focused specifically on maternal time and found with regards to children ages 3 to 11 it was the quality of time spent with children not the quantity that matters.

Here’s a quote from the study itself.

Both time mothers spent engaged with and accessible to offspring were assessed. In child-hood and adolescence, the amount of maternal time did not matter for offspring behaviors, emotions, or academics, whereas social status factors were important.
— Does the Amount of Time Mothers Spend With Children or Adolescents Matter?

Read that. Read it again. Keep reading it until it sinks in.

The amount of maternal time DID. NOT. MATTER. 

This is what happens when we parent based on emotion instead of facts. I’ve written before about the way in which I let emotions almost ruin my marriage. If I felt like Nicholas didn’t love me, surely that meant Nicholas didn’t love me. 

Turns out. Not so much.

I’ve just recently come to realize that this principle also applies to parenting. Just because I feel like I’m not doing enough for my kids doesn’t mean I’m actually failing my children.

Emotions are based on all manner of input from our own insecurities, experiences from our own childhood, and especially outdated and sexist cultural assumptions about the role of women in the home.

We all to take a step back and look at the science, look at the evidence, look at our own reality.

We might feel guilty for working outside the home but the reality is less time with our kids is not harmful. We might feel like we should spend all our time as stay at home moms engaged with our children but the reality is more doesn't always equal better.

Don't’ get me wrong. Emotions are important. Emotions steer us in the right direction most of the time. However, they cannot be our entire roadmap.

Now, if you actually miss your kids, that's one thing. If you miss your kids, then don't let anyone guilt you into leaving your family. Stay home. Soak 'em up. By all means.

However, in the immortal words of Leslie Knope, “ 'Do you miss your kids while you're at work?' Of course I do. Everybody does. And then, you know, sometimes I don't."

If you don't miss your kids, then STOP FEELING GUILTY ABOUT IT. 

Depending on their age, kids need lots of things. Babies and toddlers do need lots of time to form loving attachments with their primary caregiver. Surprisingly, at the other end of the age range, the study found that more maternal time did have a positive impact on teenagers. (Of course, when you think about the huge biological and psychological growth that happens during those two time periods maybe it’s not that surprising.)

However, from the ages of 3 to 11, your children do not need every single second of your spare time. Assuming your children live with you for 18 years that is HALF of their childhood. 

So, listen to the scientists. Take a break. Take a walk. Heck, take a child-free vacation. 

And leave your guilt behind. 

How much time do you spend with your kids? Do you feel like it's never enough?

PART TWO: How should our kids be spending their time if it's not with us?

PART THREE: Is it safe to play outside?