In part one of this series, I discussed a recent study that found increased maternal time was not necessary for happy kids. In fact, it was the quality of time - not quantity of time that counts. In this post, I ask what does the science say about quality time?
I'll never forget a conversation I once had with a close friend about being a work-at-home mom. She was bemoaning the hours she spent during a recent snow day keeping her kids entertained by playing My Little Ponies.
I was sympathetic to her plight but told her I couldn't really commiserate.
"I don't really play with my kids," I told her.
She was shocked and asked why I didn’t feel guilty for not playing with my children since I was home all day. I told that I read books obviously and played the occasional game of Candyland but, overall, I expected them to entertain themselves.
Truthfully, I have never carried a lot of guilt about constantly playing with my kids. Before I ever became a mom, I read an article arguing that parental play was unnecessary and often detrimental. Kids need time to engage in their own forms of creative play and often adults over-direct, over-instruct, and plain old get in the way.
After all, the idea of "playing" with your kids is a recent invention. My mother didn't spend hours playing with me. As an only child, I spent hours playing by myself. My mother never EVER felt pressure to entertain or constantly engage with me.
If I told her I was bored, I got the same response she got from her mom and the same response my grandmother had received from my great-grandmother.
"Only boring people are bored."
That or she helpfully suggested I could clean the stove.
My family spent quality time together, but it was not always on MY terms. For some reason, time together as a family has now come to mean time together entertaining the children.
In her phenomenal book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, Jennifer Senior speaks to this new intensive model of parenting.
It makes sense on a certain level. If our goal is to raise happy, healthy children then let's do whatever makes them happy. Let's play Legos for hours. Let's fill every moment of our free time with birthday parties and bounce houses and extracurricular activities.
Though our hearts might be in the right place, this intensive form of parental interaction which begins with lots of play time and so often becomes helicopter parenting isn't good for anyone.
A recent survey of college freshmen with self-described helicopter parents was found to be less capable of dealing with real world problems. The study found, “Students with helicopter parents tended to be less open to new ideas and actions, as well as more vulnerable, anxious and self-consciousness, among other factors, compared with their counterparts with more distant parents.”
So, what does the science say about positive forms of quality time?
As we all re-arrange our lives and schedules to fit the demands of our “economically worthless but emotionally priceless” children, one form of scientifically-proven quality time has suffered.
Unfortunately, the family dinner has become rare just as the science on family dinners has become more and more conclusive. Kids who eat with their families three or more times a week are less likely to be overweight, perform better academically, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as drug abuse and early sexual activity.
I grew up eating dinner regularly with my family and it is still the source of some of my fondest memories. We try to eat dinner every night as a family and we have Sunday family dinners with my parents and grandmother every week as well.
Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, my husband cooks. He plans our week’s meals and goes to the grocery store during the weekend. Then, he comes home most nights of the week and prepare a delicious meal for us. So, it is VERY easy for me to talk about family dinners and how beneficial they are to our family.
I understand that is not the reality for most families but I also know that a family dinner could also be a family breakfast or weekend brunch or basically any time when the family is interacting as a whole and not catering to the whims of a child.
I truly believe that the most beneficial time for children is time that both the parents AND child enjoy. I don’t particularly enjoy playing Minecraft (or talking about it for hours) or going to Chuck E. Cheese or watching hours of Curious George. I do enjoy seeing my children happy and so I make some time for those activities.
However, my favorite family time is when we are all engaged together. We are eating a meal and talking about our days. We are walking the Greenway Trail and sharing stories. We are geocaching and solving a challenge by working together.
After all, I don't believe my goal is to make my children happy at the cost of my own happiness or the happiness of our family as a whole. I'm not just raising children. I'm raising a family and time spent to that end is truly valuable.
How do you spend quality time as a family?