April 3, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
There’s been a minor whoop-di-doo about a study that came out recently regarding parenting time and children’s outcomes. Numerous professional opiners leapt on the study for the proposition that the amount of time a parent spends with his/her children doesn’t much matter, but the quality of the time does.
So for example, Brigid Schulte, writing in the Washington Post, concluded that,
“[T]here’s a widespread cultural assumption that the time parents, particularly mothers, spend with children is key to ensuring a bright future.
Now groundbreaking new research upends that conventional wisdom and finds that that isn’t the case. At all.”
Of course later in her article she adds, “That’s not to say that parent time isn’t important.”
And later, “The one key instance Milkie and her co-authors found where the quantity of time parents spend does indeed matter is during adolescence: The more time a teen spends engaged with their mother, the fewer instances of delinquent behavior.”
OK, so Schulte’s first statement is contradicted by later ones in her piece, so exactly what she thinks is, to say the least, unclear.
But what’s clear enough is that the study that she and others across the liberal mediasphere so ardently embrace, is about as weak as it gets. Here’s the reliable Justin Wolfers pointing out that the study’s methodology is laughably flawed.
The claim that parenting time doesn’t matter is the bottom line of a single recent study by a team of sociologists who suggest that child outcomes are barely correlated with the time that parents spend with their children. It’s essentially a nonfinding, in that they failed to find correlations that could be reliably discerned from chance.
This nonfinding largely reflects the failure of the authors to accurately measure parental input. In particular, the study does not measure how much time parents typically spend with their children. Instead, it measures how much time each parent spends with children on only two particular days — one a weekday and the other a weekend day.
Of course there’s no particular reason why the authors chose to measure parenting only two-sevenths of the time, but that’s what they did and rendered their work insignificant in the process.
So why is such a mediocre piece of work being taken up and “chaired through the marketplace” mostly by liberal writers? It’s not a difficult question; Schulte pretty much answers it straight off the bat.
Do parents, especially mothers, spend enough time with their children?
Though American parents are with their children more than any parents in the world, many feel guilty because they don’t believe it’s enough.
In other words, the liberal press (including the New York Times and The Guardian and The Independent in the U.K.) has seized on this study, however flawed, to promote its agenda that mothers need to spend less time with their kids and more time at work. Just in case we missed the point, Schulte later quotes writer Jennifer Senior thus:
“Perhaps if you were part of a culture that actually felt less ambivalent about mothers working, and had a system of child care in place where it was okay for mothers to work, I think you would automatically feel less guilt and pressure to spend more time with kids,” she said.
So this article and the study itself are part of the liberal plea for more governmental support for mothers working. In practice, that means more state-subsidized child care. Would that mean mothers would feel less guilt? I doubt it. Somehow making it easy for mothers to dump their kids at daycare doesn’t strike me as a slam-dunk cure for maternal guilt about spending too little time with their kids.
Now, I’ve often inveighed against the type of helicopter parenting so much in vogue among those with the time and money to do it. Indeed, I’ve championed Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids movement that seeks to give parents and kids the freedom to just leave each other alone. But as I said, helicopter parenting isn’t what most parents do. As Schulte’s article itself shows, average parenting time in the U.S. runs to 13.7 hours per week for mothers and 7.2 hours per week for fathers. Two and one hours per day respectively is a far cry from the ubiquity usually associated with the helicopter parent.
So what this article plainly has in its sights is the middle – upper middle class mother who could curtail her intensive parenting if she wanted to. Poorer mothers who don’t have the wherewithal to spend all day every day with their kids aren’t part of this discussion.
But elsewhere, we know what mothers and people generally think is best. This Pew Social Trends report shows that by a 60% to 35% margin, Americans think a parent should be home with the kids. Fathers and mothers both think that. When the question is whether mothers specifically should stay home, 51% still say she should while the percentage that thinks it doesn’t matter remains unchanged at 34%. In short, a large majority of Americans tend to think one parent or the other should stay home with the children and they prefer that it be Mom.
As is so often the case, social justice warriors are certain they know what’s good for us and our kids and we don’t. They therefore set out to change the status quo by hook or by crook and the rest of us can just deal with their social engineering the best we can. The article and the study are particularly desperate efforts in that regard.
To make those vast social changes these people have decided are in our interests, they attempt to draw a distinction between the quantity of parenting time and the quality. The bottom line of both the article and the study is that quality time is all that’s required for children to promote children’s welfare.
But of course the “quantity/quality” dichotomy is mostly a false one. The simple fact is that, in order to have that quality time the authors so enthusiastically embrace, a parent needs enough time with the kids. As most parents know all too well, it’s hard to simply manufacture “quality time.” That’s particularly true when parents are exhausted from a long day at work, they’re trying to concentrate on getting a meal on the table and the kids are desperate for Mom and Dad after their own long day at daycare. That’s not quality time, it’s one more desperate attempt to get the basics done with as little trauma as possible.
Weirdly, Schulte and those she interviews discuss the stress mothers experience, but only see it in the context of feeling they should be doing more, i.e. helicopter parenting. That putting in a full day at work and still trying to be the best parent you can be might be a source of stress never seems to occur to Schulte, et al. That’s true despite several decades of research and popular culture mulling exactly that work/family stress.
And we mustn’t forget fathers. After all, the mantra of “quality not quantity” applies to them too. What have fathers been fighting for lo these many years? That’s right, more time with their kids. They’ve been stepping up to the parenting plate more and more in the hopes of getting a better deal from family courts if their marriage breaks up. That’s had almost no measureable effect on their parenting time post-divorce of course, but they’ve done it anyway. And every year we have more equal parenting bills before state legislatures and some show signs of passing.
So the WaPo article and the study must also be seen in the light of the incipient trend toward more equal parenting. Put simply, both argue in opposition. Though they don’t say so explicitly, the claim that it’s not quantity but quality that counts is a direct challenge to the notion of equal parenting. Why should fathers receive more time? After all, they usually get 14% - 20% of the parenting time post-divorce. Isn’t that enough to squeeze in some quality time?
So the argument goes, threadbare as it is. One bad study scarcely trumps a bevy of research demonstrating the many benefits to children, fathers, mothers and society generally from equal parenting. But when your agenda is replacing fathers with state-paid daycare, you do what you can.
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