Working parents often feel guilty for not spending more time with our children. But it turns out we’re doing well compared to parents 50 years ago, according to a new study of parental involvement since the 1960s.
Between 1965 and 2012, parents in 10 of 11 Western nations all showed a dramatic increase in the amount of time spent with their kids. That’s a very good thing: When a parent spends more time with a child, it has been shown to improve his or her language skills, brain development, social behavior, and more.
“Not just moms but also dads are getting into the act spending more time with their children,” says Judith Treas, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, and co-author of the paper, published recently in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
Treas and co-author Giulia Dotti Sani analyzed data from the Multinational Time Use Study, an archive of numerous studies conducted since 1965 in which participants in 11 countries — including the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, Denmark, and more — responded to a detailed survey about their time use in a given day, including childcare activities.
In 1965, mothers spent an average of 54 minutes per day on activities with their children: feeding them, reading to them, putting them to bed. Moms in 2012, however, averaged almost twice that, spending 104 minutes per day with their offspring. Fathers had an even more dramatic increase: Their time with kiddos nearly quadrupled, from a daily average of just 16 minutes in 1965 to 59 minutes in 2012.
The increased parental time held true for every country in the survey except France. The study did not determine why that was the case, says Treas, but French families have been noted in the past for a distinct parenting approach emphasizing independence, as described in the best-selling book “Bringing Up Bébé.”
The researchers also narrowed in on parents’ educational level. College-educated parents, it turns out, spend more time with their kids than parents with less education. That may be because they have jobs that allow them more time with kids, or because they’re more likely to be aware of the benefits of parenting time. No matter the cause, it’s a concerning trend, says Treas. “Kids who are already disadvantaged could end up further disadvantaged if their parents cannot spend as much time with them.”
For now, there is no definitive “right” amount of time a parent can be advised to spend with his or her children. If the reported trend continues, it’s possible we’ll even reach a threshold where parents are spending too much time with children, à la helicopter parents. “There is a question about whether there are diminishing returns to parents’ time spent with children,” says Treas.
But in any case, there is growing evidence that what really matters is less quantity than quality. In a 2015 study, the more time a mother spent truly engaged with her adolescent, the fewer delinquent behaviors he or she exhibited. Spending time directly interacting with your kids can make a bigger difference than just being present for longer, Treas says. In other words, it may be better to read to a child for twenty minutes than to park her in a nearby playpen for an hour.