Last week the media happily seized on a study released in the Journal of Marriage and Family in which three sociologists presented their findings of a long-term study that examined the affect of mother’s time spent with children on the emotional and educational outcomes of the children. They found no relation between how much time mothers (study mostly focused on mothers) spend with their kids (aged 3 to 11) and the child’s well-being, until high school. In high school, teenagers benefit from increased time spent with both mother and father.
Here are some problems with this study:
1. The study only looked at time spent with children on two days, then looked at how well the kids were doing years later.
I would be very concerned if somebody tried to draw conclusions (years from now) about my family based on how much time we spent together over the next few days, but that is exactly what this study does: it infers something meaningful from something meaningless. There are so many variables not considered by this methodology that a finding of no connection between time spent and child outcomes is, well, not terribly interesting. Dr. Justin Wolfe, professor of economics and social policy, put it like this: “The study measured only the amount of time that parents spent with their children on two specific days, and a brief snapshot like this is an unreliable measure of how much time a parent might typically spend with children. This measure contains a little signal and a lot of noise, which probably explains why the study failed to find a reliable correlation with children’s outcomes.” You can read his criticism of the study here.
2. The study did not examine the quality of the emotional relationship between the children and the parents, either before or during the study.
The authors admit that they did not evaluate the “tone” of the relationship between the mother and her children when they were spending time together. “[N]either did we assess the quality of tone of mothers’ interactions with children, such as warmth, sensitivity, or focus.” But this tone is critical to child outcomes.
In particular, the authors failed to assess the quality of a child’s attachment to the mother at age 3 (the age the authors begin their measurements) and younger (which is odd because of some of the children in their original sample were younger than 3, so this marker could have been observed). Attachment scientists have identified in copious studies the critical importance of a child’s secure attachment to her parents. A child’s strong attachment to Mommy initially and other significant caregivers later is among the most important predictors of that child’s positive psychological outcome later in life.
Compared to insecurely attached children, children with a secure attachment tend to mature with the following patterns:
- They are more resilient in the face of adversity.
- They possess a more positive attitude about the future.
- They possess greater self-esteem.
- They take greater initiative in mastering difficult tasks.
- In middle childhood, they are warm and open, and they are capable of forming close friendships.
- As they mature, they tend to form friendships with people who also possess qualities of secure attachment.
Securely-attached children do better in childhood and adulthood than insecurely attached children, and secure attachment requires BOTH quality time and quantity time. Here’s why: Secure attachment occurs when a child’s parents and caregivers respond to her needs and fears with warmth and respect, when the child receives generous amounts of affection – and when all of this happens consistently and reliably. This requires high-quality quantity time. How much actual time a child needs to thrive varies depending on 1) her age, 2) her temperament, and 3) the day or hour! Kids needs change and transform over time, but responsive, empathic parenting is worth it in the long run.
I am not suggesting that our children need us 24 hours a day or that other trusted caregivers are not an important part of the unfolding of childhood. I am saying that mothers and fathers bring unique gifts to parenting, and when either mom or dad are not around enough, it matters. I am saying that nobody loves our children like we do, and that without enough time together we can’t develop that quiet sense of security and connection that comes from building memories together.
3. The study did not evaluate quality time at all.
The authors state clearly in the study state they did not look at (measure or evaluate) quality time at all, “[W]e did not focus on quality time — the amount of time in particular quality activities with children, such as reading or eating meals together versus watching TV or cleaning with them.” Yet the media attempts to assuage parental guilt by asserting that quality time is more important than quantity. My fear is that parents will somehow think it’s okay to stay at work for 12 hours, then tell themselves because of this study that how much time they spend with their children doesn’t matter as long as they get in a little quality time just before bedtime or on the weekends. Kids can’t be scheduled like an oil change.
I have many more criticisms that I won’t hammer out here. In brief, I am not a statistician or a scientist, but I know something about history and about cultural anthropology. The authors of this study lack any nuanced understanding of the history of childrearing and they mistake scientific studies for culture. The predominant belief in American culture about childrearing is NOT that children require ample time for full flourishing — science proves that, but our culture is a very weak bonding culture. We can observe a serious division within the American landscape between what science tells us that children need to thrive and what our culture tells us that we as parents need to do to attain “success” — the two are often at odds.
When in doubt, follow Mother Teresa’s advice: “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your families.”